Jeff Samardzija's Excellent Adventure

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Jeff Samardzija's Excellent Adventure

In a couple of weeks, Jeff Samardzija will be the Cubs' ace. It will be by default, of course, with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza having left for greener pastures. Nevertheless, the former Notre Dame stand-out known more for his play on the gridiron those days than on the diamond will be the Cubs number one starter -- hard to believe considering where Samardzija was at spring training a year ago. Back then, no one knew if Samardzija was going to make the team, let alone how he would fit in.

But late last season, Samardzija started to figure it out and the turnaround was on. Even I've done a complete 180 on the guy who I dismissed as a character out of the movie "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" completely unworthy of the 10 million signing bonus Jim Hendry gave him in 2007.

Don't get me wrong, he's still a version of Keanu Reeves' Ted likely to utter a few 'whoas' and he's got the long hair that he calls 'a great set of weeds.' (Nevermind that Jeff was only four when the movie came out.) The difference is the guy can pitch and that makes his surfer dude persona more endearing and less annoying.

But I think the real reason I was annoyed with Samardjiza for the last four years was because he was so darn unreliable. His early career was that of bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the majors, and when he was with the big-league squad his home was in the bullpen, where he was maddeningly inconsistent. In 2009, he had a 7.53 ERA in 20 appearances, and an ERA over eight (in limited playing time) in 2010.

I was ready to see him move along, but then something clicked for him and for me and he's turned into one of the Cubs assets for the future and one of the best guys in the clubhouse to talk to. Samardzija is my new go-to-guy.

I asked Samardzija recently about how he was able to go from hanging-on-a-thread to legitimate starting pitcher. (Truth be told, an anonymous source told me Samardzija was notorious for tipping his pitches, something the Cubs have helped him correct, but he's also made some other changes.)

"Coming into camp, (the Cubs) put a lot of faith in me and there was a lot of responsibility with what they expected," recalls Samardzija. "I just wanted to take advantage of that. I worked hard in the off-season and didn't want the opportunity to slip away."

And according to pitching coach Chris Bosio, Samardzija was an eager student willing to be coached and receptive to suggestions.

"We laid out a pretty good plan for him and he's followed it," Bosio said. "Just as far as how to set up hitters, be more aggressive with his fastball, be more efficient which we're trying to stress as a staff. Jeff's following suit, he's a hard worker, he gets it."

Yes, Samardzija gets it on and off the mound. He gets that he plays a game for a living and while he takes his job seriously, he doesn't take himself too seriously. For example, Samardzija pitched on his bobblehead day and jokingly said he felt some pressure to perform well because he didn't want to leave the ballpark that day and see hundreds of bobbleheads smashed on the sidewalks.

He generally lets things roll off his shoulders. Like when he hit Paul Konerko in the face during the CubsSox series. I talked to Jeff the next day and he genuinely felt bad about hitting Konerko and insisted it was unintentional. When I told him he was getting killed on the radio by fans who thought it was bush-league, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I figured as much. It's all part of the game."

Nothing seems to bother the guy. I keep waiting for him to drop a "party on, dudes" a la Ted. The closest I came was last week when the team's nutritionist walked through the dugout. Samardzija admitted to me he eats a lot of junk food. McDonalds, you name it.

"Candy, too?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, all of it," he replied.

"That's going to catch up to one day," I said in my best mom voice.

"It's all good," he said. "I'm not worried about it."

Party on, Jeff.

If Samardzija can keep building on what he's done through 13 starts, he's going to be more than a serviceable pitcher for the Cubs and could finally realize the potential Hendry saw in him five years ago. Even Samardzija admits it's been a long road.

"It's been a long time coming," he admits. "It's nice when you work for something and end up getting what you want."

And if Samardzija sits atop the Cubs rotation even in a dismal rebuilding year, it will be significant.

I can just hear him now in his best Ted voice, "This has been a most excellent adventure!"

And it's sure to get even better for Samardzija.

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Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks host Lightning tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks host Lightning tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Grab the first goal.

The Blackhawks have scored the game's first goal in seven of the last eight games, and of those seven, they've won six of them. Meanwhile, the Lightning have scored the first goal only 17 times in 48 games this season, and are 12-5-1 in those games. They're 9-17-4 when they allow the first goal, so getting out to a lead first will be important against a struggling Lightning team looking for signs of life.

2. Will the floodgates open for Jonathan Toews?

After a four-point game in a 4-2 win over Vancouver, the Blackhawks captain matched his point total over his previous nine games. He's up to 26 points on the season, which is now fifth among Chicago forwards. When Toews has offensive droughts, they usually last longer than they should. But when he gets hot, he gets extremely hot. Perhaps we'll see the floodgates open offensively.

3. A chance for the team lead in scoring.

With an empty-net goal on Sunday, Marian Hossa tied Artem Anisimov for the team-lead with 18 goals. Artemi Panarin is right behind with 17, and Patrick Kane isn't far either at 15. The Blackhawks had four 20-goal scorers last season, and haven't had more than that since the 2013-14 season. They're definitely on pace to hit four, but could they surprass that? Richard Panik, who scored another goal Sunday as well, is fifth with 11 goals while Ryan Hartman has 10. Toews is at eight, but a flurry after a drought could make things interesting.

4. The triplets reunited?

In an effort to jumpstart a struggling offense, Lightning coach Jon Cooper reunited the triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat that was so successful during their 2015 playoff run in their latest game, a 5-3 loss to Arizona. It's unclear whether they will begin tonight's game on the same line, but if not, it's worth watching throughout the game whether they do. The Blackhawks have been coming at opponents in waves lately, so Cooper could look to separate the three to distribute the scoring.

5. Take advantage on special teams.

The Lightning have racked up the fifth-most penalty minutes in the league, and own a bottom-10 penalty kill unit at 80.1 percent. The Blackhawks are the second-least penalized team, and have converted on 17.9 percent of their power plays, which sits at 16th. But they haven't scored one on the man advantage in five straight games, going 0-for-9 during that span. Here's a chance to change that.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

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