ATLANTA – Jeff Samardzija is supposed to be a star attraction at the renovated Wrigley Field. The dude with the long hair, 97 mph fastball and Notre Dame name recognition is perfect for the marketing department.
The Cubs want you to think about the future. Your ad could go here on the Jumbotron. The new clubhouse will be all tricked out. There will be sunshine and eye candy on the party decks. But in the heat of the moment, that doesn’t matter.
Whether or not the Cubs reach an agreement with the City of Chicago and the 44th Ward in time to make an announcement before Monday’s home opener and smile for the cameras, the renovation plans aren’t going to do much now for the 25 guys in the room.
Samardzija flirted with Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout pace before slowly unraveling in the sixth inning of Sunday’s 5-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves that swept the Cubs out of Turner Field. He was animated and intense but said it had nothing to do with feeling the pressure of working with almost no margin for error.
“Our job is to pitch,” said Samardzija, who finished with 13 strikeouts. “Our job’s not to judge what the hitters are doing. So I’m going to go out and try to keep zeroes on the board as much as I can.”
The Braves (5-1) put three runs up in the sixth inning, capitalizing on the double play Starlin Castro and Alberto Gonzalez couldn’t convert, and the rocket shot that bounced off the All-Star shortstop’s wrist.
Samardzija dropped Chris Johnson to the ground with a pitch up-and-in and charged toward home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez with his long arms raised and spread wide in disbelief that he actually hit the guy.
Samardzija doubled over and almost looked like he was in pain when Ramiro Pena snuck a groundball by Gonzalez – the diving second baseman filling in for Gold Glover Darwin Barney (knee) – for a two-run single that gave the Braves a 3-1 lead.
“I just got to finish the ballgame out, especially with a lineup like that,” said Samardzija, who was charged with four runs in 5.2 innings. “You take a deep breath. That team’s going to win 95 games this year. So you need to lock it down the whole time you’re on the mound.”
Yes, “The Braves Way” still means something, even with Chipper Jones in retirement and a next generation of pitchers on the rise. While the Cubs choose to operate like a mid-market team, Atlanta had enough resources this winter to acquire brothers B.J. and Justin Upton, the kind of difference-makers they’re waiting for on the North Side.
The Cubs have scored 13 runs through six games, but with the way Samardzija was pitching, that at first seemed “irrelevant, dude,” as Wood might say.
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After throwing eight scoreless innings on Opening Day, Samardzija recorded his first six outs with swinging strikeouts, creating flashbacks to Kid K’s masterpiece against the Houston Astros almost 15 years ago.
“Oh, I’ve seen it about a hundred times in the clubhouse, so I knew what was going on,” Samardzija said. “(But if) you strike out a lot of guys, the pitch count gets up and as a starter your big job is to pitch deep into the game and keep it close. And I failed to do that. So strikeouts or no strikeouts, it doesn’t really matter.”
The last game at Wrigley Field this season is scheduled for Sept. 25, a weekday game against the Pittsburgh Pirates that should have plenty of tickets available. After that, the baseball operations side had been told that the first phase of building should begin, making sure the new clubhouse and batting tunnels are ready by Opening Day 2014.
By then, maybe Samardzija will have proven himself as a No. 1 starter worthy of the big contract extension he thinks he’ll deserve, and the Cubs will be swimming in all those new revenue streams.
But Samardzija doesn’t think you should overanalyze this road trip or place too much importance upon a 2-4 start or worry about a tough homestand featuring the Milwaukee Brewers, San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers.
“You got to take this sport day-to-day,” Samardzija said. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on tomorrow or what happened yesterday. You got to control what you can control. And I let it get away from me.”