The list of things that I don't really understand in baseball is infinite, but somewhere near the top of it is this: the veteran pitcher who's out on the mound and not quite pitching like himself, but still has things so completely under control that you never really doubt him. That was Wandy Rodriguez on Wednesday night against the Cubs. Rodriguez is mostly a ground ball/strikeout pitcher these days, but for five innings he was mostly a flyout/strikeout guy. From what I can tell and what I can remember, the first groundout that Rodriguez induced tonight other than a sacrifice bunt was the last out of the sixth inning. And still, Rodriguez was absolutely cruising against the Cubs. He got stronger as the game went on, too; the first time through the lineup he didn't strike anyone out, but the second time through he notched three Ks. He didn't really look like Wandy Rodriguez at all, but he was definitely in control.
That was true until the seventh inning. His pitch total wasn't all that high, but a combination of the cold weather and maybe his short spring left him pretty visibly gassed in the seventh. He hit Anthony Rizzo with a 1-2 pitch to start the inning, which was pretty surprising to see given his control in the earlier part of the game. He gave up a tweener single after that, then struck out Scott Hairston and hit Wellington Castillo with a pitch. By this point, it seemed clear that Rodriguez was gassed; he only hit three hitters total in 2012 and seeing him hit two in an inning was pretty alarming. Clint Hurdle stuck with him for some reason, though, and the result was the at-bat of the night. Rodriguez got ahead 0-2 on Brent Lillibridge in the count, but just couldn't finish him off. If the two HBPs weren't enough evidence that Rodriguez was gassed, being unable to finish off Brent Lillibridge was the clincher. The first 0-2 pitch was the third straight curveball of the at-bat. Lillibridge fouled that one off, and Rodriguez started working in the fastball. He threw two fastballs, a curve, and three more fastballs while Lillibridge fouled off enough pitches to fill the count. On the tenth pitch of the at-bat, Lillibridge sat in looking for one more fastball and Rodriguez somehow fooled him with what certainly looked like a belt-high hanging curveball for strike three.
Hurdle mercifully pulled Rodriguez at that point and then went completely crazy (he brought Tony Watson in to face a righty, then let Watson bunt for himself after Clint Barmes lead off the bottom of the seventh with a double), but the turning point of the game was Wandy Rodriguez somehow gutting out that bases loaded strikeout of Lillibridge despite having nothing left in the tank. Watson and Jason Grilli slammed the door shut without much incident and now the Pirates are 1-1.
There were a few offensive performances worth mentioning. Andrew McCutchen's RBI double in the fourth inning was big, since it ended up resulting in two runs after Starlin Castro's error on a Gaby Sanchez ground ball. Starling Marte came through to single Barmes home after the puzzling Watson bunt in the seventh, which gave a nice cushion for Watson and Grilli. Really, though, this game was mostly about Wandy Rodriguez. All of the flyouts early on were very strange and he clearly ran out of gas in the seventh inning of this one, but he still shut the Cubs down through the better part of seven innings. This is the exact sort of start that I'm worried that James McDonald, Jeff Locke, and Jonathan Sanchez won't be able to turn in, and so it's nice to know that Rodriguez is capable of it.
There's something about the first win of the season, isn't there? The winter is always long and it seems just a little bit longer when the Pirates lose on Opening Day.