Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Carlos Villanueva has experienced an unusual beginning to his 2014 season. Despite being penciled in as the fifth starter to open the season, Villanueva has already made two relief appearances for the Cubs, somehow dropping two decisions to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the process.
On Opening Day, Villanueva entered a scoreless tie in the tenth inning against the Pirates. Jeff Samardzija had been magnificent over seven innings, scattering five hits while striking out three. Three relievers got the Cubs to the tenth inning, setting the stage for Villanueva, whose appearance turned out to be rather brief as second baseman Neil Walker hit a walk-off homer for the Pirates.
The decision by Cubs manager Rick Renteria to use Villanueva in this relief spot is certainly questionable, considering his status as the fifth starter and the multiple options available out of the bullpen. The decision became even more dubious after Wednesday night’s proceedings as the Cubs and Pirates engaged in a 16-inning marathon that stretched into early Thursday morning.
The Cubs were forced to use Villanueva to start the 15th inning after using seven relievers, including closer Jose Veras, who blew his first save opportunity for the Cubs after entering the game in the 12th inning with a one-run lead. Villanueva pitched one scoreless inning before allowing the game-winner in the following frame.
A pitcher with the versatility of Villanueva is important to any pitching staff, as he can be shuffled back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen if necessary. But these hybrid capabilities should not be abused. It was perfectly reasonable to use Villanueva in relief on Wednesday night, as the Cubs had exhausted their bullpen options. Actually, Villanueva is ideal for such a situation because he could conceivably pitch a number of innings if the game continues indefinitely.
However, it was not necessary for Renteria to use Villanueva in the tenth inning on Opening Day. As a result, Villanueva has now appeared in the first two games of the season, for no particular reason, with his first start still looming over the weekend. In addition, he somehow has two losses on his record before making his first start of the season, which is an unusual distinction. Hopefully Villanueva can avoid that third loss this weekend.