Wandy Rodriguez felt the jitters when he woke up Thursday morning preparing for his first start in nearly a year.
The nerves faded by the time the Pittsburgh Pirates left-hander walked into PNC Park. After six increasingly promising innings, the Pirates could exhale, too.
Though Rodriguez took the defeat in a 3-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs, he wasn't exactly ready to call his return to the mound a failure after missing most of the 2013 season with tightness in his left forearm.
"I threw well in spring training but today was different," Rodriguez said. "I was emotional. Everything is different right here but you know what? Everything felt good so I'm good."
The 35-year-old allowed three runs on six innings, walking one and striking out five. He gave up a single run in each of the first three frames but improved as the dreary afternoon wore on, retiring 10 of the final 11 batters he faced.
"He finished up very efficiently, very strong, a very good outing," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "A big confidence boost for him and a momentum builder."
And a welcome one at that. Pittsburgh's chances of competing for another postseason spot will rely on Rodriguez's ability to return to form. He was off to a strong start last spring when he began experiencing discomfort in his throwing arm, a pain that never really went away.
The team brought him along slowly during the spring. Stretched out for the first time, Rodriguez threw 93 pitches and flashed the kind of off-speed command that can play well at his home ballpark.
"I've got it in my mind to throw down with the breaking ball and the last three innings I feel like I throw whatever I want," Rodriguez said.
Tony Sanchez hit a two-run single in the seventh for the Pirates and Pittsburgh put the tying run on base leading off the eighth and ninth innings but couldn't put together its first 3-0 start since 2007.
Jason Hammel struck out five and walked one in 6 2-3 innings to help the Cubs avoid their worst start in 17 years. Pedro Strop worked the ninth for the save.
Emilio Bonifacio went 2 for 4 and scored twice to continue his torrid start. The Chicago center fielder hit 11 for 16 (.688) during the opening three-game series. Mike Olt hit the first home run of his career for the Cubs.
After playing 26 innings in the first two games of the series, things moved a bit more briskly on a cold, wet day thanks in part to a pair of pitchers who weren't in the mood to nibble at the plate.
The Cubs signed Hammel to a one-year, $6 million contract over the winter hoping the 31-year-old can provide some stability in the middle of the rotation. He was sharp in his Chicago debut, allowing singles in the first and third innings but otherwise keeping the Pirates in check.
"He couldn't have been any better," Chicago manager Rick Renteria said of Hammel. "He got to 97 pitches, got us into the seventh inning to help save the bullpen. He worked through a pretty good lineup pretty easily. "
Hammel left the seventh after walking Neil Walker with two outs. Pittsburgh took advantage of another shaky performance from Chicago's bullpen with Sanchez — who provided the walkoff hit on Wednesday — smacking a two-run single up the middle off Justin Grimm to pull the Pirates within a run.
NOTES: The Pirates open a three-game series on Friday against defending NL Central champion St. Louis. Gerrit Cole, who took the loss in Game 5 of the NL division series against the Cardinals last year, starts for Pittsburgh against Shelby Miller. ... Pittsburgh RHP Edinson Volquez pitched two scoreless innings in relief and is still scheduled to start on Sunday against the Cardinals. ... The Cubs open the 100th season at Wrigley Park on Friday against the Phillies. Travis Wood starts for Chicago against Roberto Hernandez.