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Cubs know importance of starting year strong

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PITTSBURGH -- Theo Epstein can focus on the Cubs getting off to a good start, not explaining what he's trying to do in Year 2.

Epstein, who took over as president of baseball operations in October 2011, spent Year 1 talking about the need to build a foundation for sustained success, incorporating "The Cubs Way," and adding staff to make his vision work.

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"There's been a lot of growth [in the organization] and there needs to be more growth, and we need to have it manifest on the big league field, and today is the start of that," Epstein said prior to the season opener, a 3-1 win Monday over the Pirates.

The win was huge, and not just because it was only the second time in the last seven years that the Cubs were victorious on Opening Day.

"To get a win is good for our whole organization and for the season, to get off on the right note," said Anthony Rizzo, who did just that, hitting the first pitch he saw over the right-center-field bleachers for a two-run home run.

Of the 10 teams that made the postseason last year, only the Athletics posted a sub .500 April, and they made up for that with a 19-5 July. Winning the opener doesn't guarantee a World Series berth. The defending champion Giants lost their first three games of 2012, and also lost Monday to the Dodgers. 

But a "W" helps the mood when coming off a 101-loss season, which the Cubs are, and when key players are on the disabled list. Matt Garza, sidelined with a strained left lat, could return in May. Ian Stewart has recovered from a wrist injury but is on the DL because of a sore left quad. Darwin Barney joined those players on the DL after cutting his left kneecap sliding into the wall at Minute Maid Park in the last exhibition game of the spring.

"We're going to try to turn these early injuries into a positive," Epstein said. "If we can get off to a good start in April with the weather -- they're often low-scoring games [in the first month], and there's a real fine line between victory and defeat, and the key is good execution and playing smart baseball. If we can play well right out of the chute, and we know we're getting good players off the disabled list soon, we'll try to turn it into a positive."

Monday's win helped new Cubs like Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva feel good about the guys backing them up. Even without Barney's Gold Glove in the lineup, the defense was solid. Brent Lillibridge did make an error in the first, but Jeff Samardzija overcame that and overwhelmed the Pirates with a mix of offspeed pitches, setting the tone.

"As a pitcher, when you see defense like that, we know there are plays that this team is capable of making," Jackson said. "It makes you want to go out and make the hitters put the ball in play, be aggressive, put the ball in the strike zone. You don't feel like you have to pitch a perfect game -- you can count on the team to make plays behind you."

The question after Game 1, though, is can the Cubs count on Carlos Marmol? Opening Day was not drama free, as Cubs manager Dale Sveum pulled Marmol in the ninth after the right-hander hit a batter, served up an RBI single, and then walked the next hitter. Kyuji Fujikawa got the save in his first big league appearance.

"We're going to need him," Cubs catcher Welington Castillo said of Marmol. "He's the closer and we need him to be in that situation and throw strikes. I can tell that's not him, I know he was a little bit wild. He's better than that. I hope he can turn it around quick."

Marmol is still the closer.

"I'm not concerned about anything right now," Sveum said after the game. "We got a win. We did it a little unconventional, but the bottom line is [Marmol] is still the closer and we won a ballgame."

"[Sveum] wants to win," Jackson said. "It's known that he wants to win. You see a starter go out and go deep into the ballgame like [Samardzija] did, [Sveum] is going on how we feel. If he thinks you look strong, he'll keep you out there. If not, he'll go to whoever he feels like he has to go to to get the job done."

Jackson will take the mound Wednesday for Game 2 when the Cubs resume the regular season. Tuesday provided a good break for Alberto Gonzalez, added to the roster when Barney was injured. The infielder packed for a weekend trip to Houston, not a two-week extended stay with the Cubs.

"I don't have too much -- I need to go to the mall," Gonzalez said.

He wasn't complaining. Nobody on the Cubs is now.

"It's always good to get the ball rolling in a positive direction," Jackson said.

Last year, the Cubs went 8-15 in April. Out of contention at the Trade Deadline, Epstein dealt several veterans for young talent, continuing the rebuilding phase. That could happen again this July.

"I think a good start is important for many reasons," Epstein said. "One, we haven't had good starts around here, as a rule. Good starts can create momentum in and of itself that maybe transcends where it puts you in the standings, because there's a confidence that builds. Players start to get a sense of destiny, and those close games can really start to go your way when you believe. Conversely, a bad start can put you in a position where those things are hard to come by.

"We made a lot of progress last year," Epstein said. "Great things lie ahead for the organization, and now it's time to go out and compete and see if we can get off to a good start and find ourselves right in the middle of this thing, as we want to be."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"event":["opening_day" ] }
{"event":["opening_day" ] }