TELANDER: For starters, Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija is excellent
BY RICK TELANDER email@example.com April 1, 2013 9:47PM
Updated: May 3, 2013 6:37AM
PITTSBURGH — If we take Dale Sveum at his word — and why shouldn’t we, so early in the year? — then we can expect Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija to finish 2013 with a 30-0 record, about 270 strikeouts and an ERA of 0.00.
“Did I expect it?’’ Sveum asked rhetorically of Samardzija’s masterpiece 3-1 Opening Day victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I always expect it out of him. That’s what he expects out of himself, right?’’
“When a manager has confidence in you, the best thing you can do is give it right back to him and prove he made the right decision,’’ said the 6-5 right-hander, who was starting his first season opener. “The last thing you want to do is make him second-guess that decision. I want to go out and prove I can be that guy.’’
Well, that “guy’’ is a stud.
Samardzija, with long locks that nearly match the Pirates’ Andrew McCutcheon’s famous ’do (except for the tip highlights), looked like the ace of any staff you might care to name. He was shaky only at the beginning, when a leadoff walk and an error by second baseman Brent Lillibridge put two men on, no outs. Bing-bing-bing, a force out and two strikeouts. And that was it for trouble.
The former Notre Dame All-American wide receiver cruised through eight innings with command as good as any star quarterback’s. He threw 110 pitches, struck out nine, and ruled the plate with a 95-mph fastball and breaking balls that moved around like gnats. Zero ERA, two hits given up.
It was crazy good, way more than most of us expected from a still-young pitcher with a career .500 record and 4.10 ERA.
Yes, you could say it was cold and nasty and bats must have felt like logs and it was only the Pirates. But the Cubs will take a victory against anybody these days. And as the saying goes, a win in April counts the same as one in September.
There were three other very pretty things about this game for Cubs fans.
First there was Anthony Rizzo’s monster home run in the first inning that drove in Starlin Castro, who had singled. That blast to left center flew out of PNC Park and had a fair-to-middling chance of reaching the Allegheny River beyond the walkway. It’s always interesting to see a home run of such crazy proportion that no fan in the stands actually reaches for it, since it is not coming near anybody.
Second, there was the heads-up play of low-profile right fielder Nate Schierholtz, who came to bat four times and reached four times, on a single, a walk, a hit-by-pitch and an error. Dude’s batting .500, with a run scored.
Then there was the aforementioned Castro, a shortstop of amazing skills, who had two hits, a run scored and played his position like a Hall of Famer. Twice — at the end of the seventh inning and the start of the eighth — he went deep into the hole to snare grounders and then threw out batters from at least 140 feet away.
“When guys are putting runs on the board early and we’re playing defense like that, it makes a pitcher’s job it’s a lot easier,’’ Samardzija said. Of Castro, specifically, he said, “We expect that from him. He expects that from himself. He is that guy.’’
Well, it seems everybody on the Cubs expects everything from everybody. That’s nice. And if Samardzija starts 30 games, we’ve already declared what his numbers will be. Of course, that won’t happen. But what a pleasant surprise this was.
And it makes one wonder how on earth an athlete with a laser-guided cannon for an arm, a guy like Samardzija, could have played anything in football other than quarterback. But he didn’t even play that throwing position in high school.
So has there been another big-league pitcher who didn’t play quarterback?
“Not that I know of,’’ he says.
Hmm. Slugger Adam Dunn was a quarterback. Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick was a pitcher. Pitcher Mike Stanton was a quarterback. Dan Marino was a pitcher.
“I’d throw the football hard and it would wobble like a duck,’’ explains Samardzija. “I couldn’t get a good spiral. Just ducks. And I had a good quarterback in high school. And at Notre Dame it was Brady Quinn.’’
OK, we’ll accept that. Especially since this outing was the finest of Samardzija’s major-league career.
“Mmm, pitching it was,’’ Samardzija agreed, thinking a bit, clearly proud of his location and control. “I’ve had better stuff, but I moved the ball up and down the plate today.’’
And the cold, that saw light snow flurries early on? How tough was that?
“It wasn’t that bad,’’ the winning pitcher stated. “The snow cleared up, the sun came out — it was a beautiful day to play.’’
Thank you, Jeff.