PITTSBURGH — Neil Walker understands not everybody is going to be a fan of Major League Baseball’s expanded replay system.
The funny thing is, there weren’t many critics to be found on Monday at PNC Park.
Walker, the Pirates’ second baseman, homered off Carlos Villanueva leading off the 10th inning, and the Pirates benefited from an overturned call to beat the Chicago Cubs 1-0.
The Pittsburgh native turned on a Villanueva changeup and sent it sailing over the Clemente Wall in right field for the first walk-off of his career and the first by the Pirates on opening day since Bob Bailey homered off San Francisco’s Juan Marichal in a 1-0, 10-inning victory in 1965.
[PHOTO: Pittsburgh Pirates' Neil Walker hit the game-wining home run in the tenth inning against the Chicago Cubs on Monday in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)]
“This one feels pretty special,” Walker said. “This is a special day for this team, this organization. We’ve come a long way.”
So has the game.
After spending decades fighting the advances of technology, Major League Baseball has embraced the concept. Many calls can be challenged this season under an expanded system, and both teams wasted little time putting umpires to work.
The Cubs made history by initiating the first review under the new guidelines.
Chicago’s rookie manager, Rick Renteria, challenged a double-play call in the top of the fifth following a demonstrative “safe” call by Jeff Samardzija following a poorly executed sacrifice bunt attempt.
First base umpire Bob Davidson’s decision was confirmed on replay.
“It was a combination of Samardzjia’s reaction and what we were looking at,” Renteria said. “We’re still trying to figure out what clear and compelling evidence is. It’s a work in progress.”
Chicago’s luck with replay didn’t get any better later.
A safe call on a pickoff attempt by Bryan Morris (1-0) with one out in the top of the 10th was reversed after Pirates manager Clint Hurdle requested a replay, sending Chicago’s Emilio Bonifacio back to the dugout after a delay of 2ﾽ minutes.
“Most of the time on pickoffs, it’s got to be very noticeable for the umpire,” Morris said. “Those bang-bang plays are always going to go to the runner. I guess that’s why it’s good to have replay.”
The largest regular season crowd in PNC Park’s 14-season history (39,833) roared its approval. The din only grew louder when Walker’s drive to right field finished halfway up the seats. That capped a giddy day for a team freed from two decades of losing after a breakout 2013 in which it won 94 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 1992.
Starter Francisco Liriano tied a team record shared by three other pitchers for most strikeouts on opening day by fanning 10 in six innings. While he struggled with his command — needing 104 pitches to get 18 outs — he was sharp when he needed to be and Pittsburgh’s stellar bullpen did the rest.