CHICAGO (MCT) — It was a perfect afternoon for new beginnings at Wrigley Field, where the ivy was in bloom on opening day for the first time anyone could remember.
"That was impressive," President Theo Epstein said Thursday morning. "I was telling someone (Wednesday) night I hope that's a good omen."
Whether that proves to be the case won't be known for a while.
But Epstein's debut as the Cubs' designated curse-breaker ended with a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to the Nationals before a nicely chilled crowd of 41,176.
The late-inning duo of Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol gave up the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively, spoiling a gem by Ryan Dempster, who was up 1-0 when he left with two outs in the eighth.
"One of those days," Wood said. "Ryan pitched great, deserved a win. We deserved to win. I don't think I had a three-ball count in the spring, and then I walked three guys in a row."
The Cubs managed only one run off Stephen Strasburg — on Marlon Byrd's fourth-inning RBI single _ but Dempster made it hold up into the eighth. He gave up only two singles, retiring 15 straight batters at one point, in becoming the first Cubs starter since Rick Sutcliffe in 1985 to hold the opposing team scoreless through seven innings on opening day.
But Dempster's pitch count was at 108 after striking out Danny Espinosa with a man on first and one out in the eighth, making his removal an easy decision for manager Dale Sveum.
"(Sveum) knows what he's doing out there," Dempster said. "I'm always comfortable handing the ball over to 'Woody.'"
Wood's workload was lightened in the middle of spring training to "save bullets" for the regular season. But he said that had nothing to do with his outing. Wood labored through a 25-pitch, three-walk, one-third of an inning, forcing home the tying run when he walked Jayson Werth after getting ahead 0-2.
Marmol retired the first two men in the ninth before Chad Tracy's long fly turned right fielder David DeJesus around, resulting in a double. Playing his first game at Wrigley, DeJesus learned the hard way about notorious lake winds.
"It started over my right shoulder and started going left," he said. "That's why I turned around and the next thing I know I looked up and the sun's there. I was like, 'Just play it off the wall.' I think it hit my arm and went to the side, and I just kept him to a double."
Ian Desmond, who had three of Washington's four hits, followed with a single to right on an 0-1 pitch, and the Nationals suddenly had the lead.
The Cubs weren't done, and Ian Stewart felt sure he tied the game with a long shot to right off Brad Lidge. But the wind kept it in the park for a triple, then pinch-runner Joe Mather was thrown out at the plate while running on contact on Jeff Baker's grounder to third, ending the last threat.
"It's just unfortunate (third baseman Ryan Zimmerman) didn't have to move a little left or right," Sveum said. "That's the gamble you're taking. The odds of getting a hit with two outs and a guy like Lidge throwing sliders every pitch. ... I'll take my chances on a ground ball being hit one step to the left or right of a fielder."
It was only one game but a tough loss on a day when everything seemed perfect _ until the end.
"Especially opening day when you're out there in front of all these great fans," Dempster said. "That's what hurts."