Samardzija hopes to be big part of Cubs’ future
By John Mutka Post-Tribune senior correspondent June 19, 2012 11:30PM
Updated: July 21, 2012 6:23AM
CHICAGO — Cubs versus White Sox? Growing up in Valparaiso, Jeff Samardzija never bought into that.
Others treated it like a Civil War, but they represented Chicago to the Cubs pitcher.
“I wasn’t too aware of the rivalry,” said Samardzija, shortly before batting practice at U.S. Cellular Field. “I liked ‘em both.”
Because it was closer than Wrigley Field, he and his dad frequented old Comiskey Park, which gave way to the present facility in 1991. There, he remembers watching a skinny version of Sammy Sosa, who played for the South Siders from 1989-91 before moving on to fame and notoriety with the Cubs.
“That was before he blew up (weight-wise),” said the 6-foot-5 right hander.
His favorite players included Gary’s Ron Kittle, who was the American League rookie of the year in 1983, and future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas.
Samardzija still brightens when asked about a somewhat scary adventure that would stick with him for a lifetime.
“My dad (Sam) had an old conversion van and we blew a tire driving to the game on the Dan Ryan,” he said, growing animated at the narrative. “Here’s me and my Pop trying to change a tire, cars whizzing by at 85 miles an hour. I’m maybe 7 or 8 years old.”
Not your typical bonding experience, but he cherishes the memory.
“I know, but it’s funny (in retrospect),” he said. “When we finally got to the game, we enjoyed it so much more after walking the tightrope on the freeway.”
Now here he is, sitting in the visitor’s dugout shortly before pre-game stretching exercises. His home is Wrigleyville. He lives within walking distance of the iconic ivy-covered tourist attraction, but prefers to drive his SUV.
It’s been a gradual process from pitching at Notre Dame, where he was a two-sport All-American, to pro ball, making his debut in Boise, Idaho, in 2006 after signing a five-year deal with the Cubs as a fifth-round draft choice. Though he was groomed as a starter in the minors, he spent nearly all his time with the Cubs in the bullpen.
Until this season, 123 of his 128 National League appearances sprinkled over four years had been in relief. Nobody could accuse the Cubs of rushing him to maturity, but he’s already made 13 starts and needs only 11 more innings to surpass his career high of 78.
Samardzija’s relatively seamless transition to a dependable part of a rotation with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza came as a pleasant surprise to first-year manager Dave Sveum, who considers him a bright building block in what could be a 100-loss season.
“Far and above what we expected,” Sveum said, a bat on his shoulder during the conversation. “Except for a couple of innings here and there when he gets his pitches up he’s been phenomenal. He’s still learning how to get through lineups and not (just) overpower people.”
Becoming a pitcher instead of a thrower is a gradual process, but Samardzija’s 5-5 record is a tribute to his five-pitch repertoire. His velocity ranges from 83-98 mph. A splitter, which he throws from 85-88, tops the list.
“It’s been a great pitch for me,” Samardzija said. “I’ve thrown it for a long time so I have a good comfort level with the splitter.”
He also relies on a 93-mph cutter, usually reserving that pitch for right-handed hitters.
Prepping for his first year in the rotation required mental as well as physical adjustments. Stretching his arm and higher pitch counts factored into the process.
Unlike a reliever, starters will be facing the same hitter three or four times. Good hitters make adjustments, so being too predictable with pitches, can have drastic consequences.
Quality starts rather than records, define a pitcher, especially on a non-contender. Samardzija has lasted at least six innings in seven of his 13 starts. In one stretch of eight starts he fashioned a sparkling 2.26 ERA, topping out with a career-high nine strikeouts in a no-decision against the Cardinals. Lately he’s struggled, but three straight rocky outings haven’t shaken his confidence.
Keeping it in perspective, Samardzija embraces the long haul. He considers himself someone who figures in Theo Epstein’s master plan.
“I like to think that I’m part of that future,” the 27-year-old pitcher said. “Hopefully I can prove it, but all I can do is handle what’s out on the field. I don’t make the moves or the trades.”
As for the present, he’s not giving up. No writing it off seasons here.
“We’ve still got 100 games left,” said Samardzija. “Nothing’s written in stone. We’re a hard-working team. We’ll only lose 100 if we allow it to happen.”
His objective is to stay consistent. Do his work. Be ready to stride to the mound every fifth day.