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Jeff Samardzija set to show he has ace material for Cubs

Chicago Cubs' Jeff Samardzijwarms up for spring training baseball game against San Francisco Giants Sunday Feb. 24 2013 MesAriz. (AP

Chicago Cubs' Jeff Samardzija warms up for a spring training baseball game against the San Francisco Giants on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

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Updated: March 26, 2013 6:08AM



MESA, Ariz. — No Ryan Dempster. No Kerry Wood. No discernible link to bygone Cubs pitching staffs when you look around the clubhouse.

‘‘It’s a little bittersweet,’’ Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija said.

The bitter part hit home when Samardzija braved the chill, ruts, incline and rattlesnake warnings to run Camelback Mountain in Phoenix by himself on winter mornings. Dempster, his old running partner, signed with the Boston Red Sox.

‘‘Of all the things that have changed for me, that’s been a big thing,’’ Samardzija said. ‘‘For three years, me and Demp have been here in the offseason working out together. But nobody was down here all offseason.

‘‘I was talking to my dog most of the offseason. My social skills took a hit.’’

The Cubs have tapped Samardzija to be the next Dempster, the next Wood. Samardzija, who pitched in a game Sunday at HoHoKam Stadium for the first time since unwillingly being shut down in September because of an innings limit, might even have the inside track to start Opening Day, given right-hander Matt Garza’s strained lat muscle.

‘‘Nobody’s got the inside track,’’ said manager Dale Sveum, who indicated it’s still too early for such projections.

In the long term, though, the Cubs have made it clear they expect at least a few Opening Day starts from Samardzija. That’s why they approached him about a long-term contract after last season. His confidence in his ability to be an ace explains why he declined the hometown discount being discussed.

Whatever the Samardzija era brings, it might start taking shape this season, with right-hander Edwin Jackson, right-hander Scott Baker and a handful of younger pitchers getting the chance to change the Cubs’ fortunes.

Whoever fortifies the rotation won’t win any fewer World Series than the Cubs did during the Wood-Mark Prior, Dempster-Carlos Zambrano eras.

‘‘Obviously, you want those guys around,’’ Samardzija said. ‘‘But I was lucky to have them for four or five years and really get to know them and pick their brains for a long time. So it’s unfortunate they’ve moved on, but it’s the nature of the business.

‘‘And me, Garza, Edwin — everybody’s excited to just see what we have as a team.’’

Samardzija has looked especially strong early in camp, and his strong debut season as a big-league starter in 2012 — particularly his two-month finish — has the Cubs talking about big things from him.

‘‘No doubt, I think we have a
No. 1 guy,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘And going into this year, there’s no baby gloves on him, no restraints, nothing we have to watch.’’

That’s still a point of irritation with Samardzija, who was stringing together some of his best starts of the season when a seemingly arbitrary innings limit caused the Cubs to shut him down.

‘‘It was what it was with that situation,’’ Samardzija said. ‘‘That was last year, so I’m really not too worried about it. I know how I ended. It was nice to throw a lot in spring training and then still throw a lot in the season. To know I was over 200 innings felt good. I would have liked to have done it just in the regular season, but I’ve got to understand there’s a plan and accept it and go on from there.’’

As much as anything, that plan includes Samardzija assuming a leadership role that Dempster and Wood filled.

‘‘He has that ability,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘His whole background leads to him being that kind of player. Obviously, being one of the best football players in the country [as a receiver at Notre Dame from 2003 to ’06] and playing on that stage . . . he’s just got all the intangibles: leader on the field, leader off the field, vocally, work ethic, then obviously being one or your better players.’’

But don’t look for Samardzija to be conspicuous in that role.

‘‘I’ve always been an on-field kind of guy anyway,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t believe in rah-rah, locker-room stuff. That doesn’t get anything done.’’

But showing younger players a big-league routine that works does — from weight-room preparation to studying hitters to maintaining control on the mound — and Samardzija has had just enough experience and success to lead the next generation of Cubs pitchers.

‘‘There’s a lot of different things,’’ said Samardzija, who swore he was looking toward October as he prepared for his first spring start Sunday. ‘‘That’s going to be part of the building of this team.’’



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