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Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs opening series preview

Francisco Liriano will lead the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation in 2014 and gets the nod on Opening Day.
Francisco Liriano will lead the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation in 2014 and gets the nod on Opening Day.
Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The 2014 MLB regular season gets underway for the Pittsburgh Pirates Monday with a matchup against the Chicago Cubs. The three-game set is the first of six the Pirates will play against the Cubs in the team's opening nine games.

The Pirates finalized their 25-man roster Saturday, as per Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and with that came the announcement of a few changes.

Vin Mazzaro, a key contributor in the Pirates bullpen in 2013, was designated for assignment as the team has 10 days to determine his fate.

First baseman Travis Ishikawa will spell Gaby Sanchez but not necessarily in a platoon role, as Sawchik notes. Tony Sanchez will serve as the backup to Russell Martin with Chris Stewart on the 15-day disabled list. Stolmy Pimentel, who will begin work out of the bullpen, provides upside as a potential option for the rotation going forward.

Monday's showdown at PNC Park pits Francisco Liriano against Jeff Samardzija.

Liriano produced a strong, bounce-back 2013 that earned him the honor of National League Comeback Player of the Year. He posted a career-high 16 wins in 26 starts. On a staff that produced four 10-game winners and starters with sub-3.30 ERAs, Liriano led the way with his 3.0 WAR, via ESPN.

In 2014, the lefty has been dealing with a sore groin, but he told Sawchik that he is fine for his start on Opening Day.

Samardzija led the Cubs in starts last season, but his results were far from stellar on a staff that did yield an All-Star in Travis Wood. The 29-year-old's 214 strikeouts put him fourth in the NL at the end of the year, but his 103 earned runs allowed slotted him in at second most in the league, behind only Edinson Volquez (108).

In his career, Samardzija is 4-1 with a 0.73 ERA at PNC Park, and he holds a 4-3 record in 18 appearances (seven starts) against the team. Last year, Samardzija was 1-3 with a 3.00 ERA in five starts, including allowing only one earned run in 15 innings at PNC Park.

Liriano, meanwhile, was tremendous in his first year on the North Side. He posted an 8-1 record with a minuscule 1.47 ERA in 11 starts in front of the home fans. Against the Cubs, Liriano was 3-1 with a 2.12 ERA in five starts.

The 30-year-old was successful against hitters on both sides of the plate, but the Cubs lineup, specifically, has had a hard time solving the Dominican native.

Andrew McCutchen stands out as a potential matchup problem, as he has a .375 average in 24 at-bats against Samardzija. The 2013 NL MVP also leads the way with nine strikeouts against the right-hander.

Game 1 of the series gets underway at 1:05 p.m. ET.

The second game of the series is slated for Wednesday at 7:05 p.m.

Edwin Jackson and Charlie Morton are the probable starters as both are hoping to improve on different aspects of the previous year.

Jackson, who posted a minus-1.3 WAR, according to ESPN, finished with an ERA just under 5.00 last season. The 30-year-old led the NL in losses (18) and went 4-10 with a 5.36 ERA in 18 starts on the road last year.

Several Pirates have had a solid, yet limited history against Jackson, including Starling Marte (5-for-11) and McCutchen (8-for-20).

Morton battled back from Tommy John surgery last season and also dealt with a foot injury. Staying healthy and establishing his sinker will be key in fostering a dominant presence on the mound in 2014. In nine starts at PNC Park last year, Morton went 2-2 with a 2.85 ERA.

The series will conclude with a day game, set for 12:35 p.m., pitting Jason Hammel against Wandy Rodriguez.

Hammel will be making his Cubs debut and has two appearances at PNC Park, racking up a 1-1 record and a 4.70 ERA. In four games against the Pirates, Hammel is 2-1 with a 4.35 ERA.

The only Pirate that has seen Hammel in more than nine at-bats is Ishikawa, who is 2-for-14.

Rodriguez struggled with a forearm injury that limited him to only 12 starts in 2013. In 11.2 innings this spring, the lefty allowed four earned runs, five walks and struck out nine. Getting him back to full health will be crucial if the Pirates are to have another season of top-notch pitching.

Darwin Barney (7-for-21) and Anthony Rizzo (3-for-10) are two players who have had success against Rodriguez. Most of the team has only seen limited at-bats against the former Houston Astro.

The series aims to be more than just another Opening Day with the announcement that 1992 NL MVP Barry Bonds will be making an appearance to help present McCutchen with his NL MVP award. Along with Bonds, former Pirates manager and NL Manager of the Year in 1990 and 1992, Jim Leyland, 1960 NL MVP Dick Groat and 2004 Silver Slugger award winner Jack Wilson will be a part of the festivities.

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