MESA, Ariz. – Jeff Samardzija is all-in.
There are no more stale questions about the NFL or reasons to second-guess his career path. The Notre Dame All-American has gone from on-the-bubble pitcher to Opening Day starter and stayed the same person – absolutely confident that he should be The Man.
So if the Cubs are counting on him to be the ace of the staff, to carry the rotation while Matt Garza and Scott Baker rehab their injuries, to show others how you handle playing inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl, well…
“I asked for it,” Samardzija said Friday. “So I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t want it. I asked to be in this situation and have it on my shoulders. I’m going to go with it (as) far as I can (and) see where it ends.”
As the regime change hit Clark and Addison in the fall of 2011, Samardzija lobbied Theo Epstein for the chance to start, meeting with Dale Sveum on the same day the new manager was introduced at a Wrigley Field news conference.
A great talker, Samardzija laid out step-by-step how he would train and prepare his body for 200-something innings. He had purposely settled down at his place in Arizona that winter, because there’s not much else to do there except work out and play golf.
“I told them (that) in previous years I didn’t feel like I had done everything I can,” Samardzija recalled. “I thought I worked hard in the offseason and did a lot of things. But I didn’t feel like I – especially in midseason – was putting myself where I needed to be (in order) to be the best I can be, you know?
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“I really worked hard that offseason (and) told them that I had no distractions in my life. This game can be a lot about minimizing the distractions on the outside. And the older you get, the more you realize that.
“I just really wanted to level with (them) that I didn’t have any distractions. The only thing on my mind was making the rotation and pitching 30-32 starts. That was really the best way I could describe it – by saying that I don’t have a girlfriend.”
In spending almost 3,500 words on a profile of the Cubs president of baseball operations published Thursday night, NBC Sports columnist Joe Posnanski mentioned how Epstein recalled Samardzija saying: “I’m dumping my girlfriend.”
Samardzija said the relationship actually ended several months earlier, but didn’t care how it was portrayed, if that made it sound like a better story. When a reporter asked if this was another Manti Te’o situation, he joked: “No, you got to have one to dump one.”
Samardzija says what’s on his mind, and that sense of humor has to help him shrug his broad shoulders at some of the nonsense that comes with playing for the Cubs and dealing with the Chicago market.
“He’s just a big kid,” pitcher Carlos Villanueva said. “He has a lot of fun.”
Sveum – who once turned down a chance to play quarterback at Arizona State – was a believer from the beginning. The Cubs thought they could hang 200 innings on Samardzija’s 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame after a solid 2011 season out of the bullpen.
“It made sense. It was a big-body guy that should be able to handle the load,” Sveum said. “(My first reaction was): ‘Yeah, man, if this works out, it could be pretty special.’”
Sveum said Samardzija has learned “how to stop gorilla pitching,” developing the feel for pitch sequences, setting up hitters and going through lineups three times a night, while still blowing them away with a 95 mph fastball.
Samardzija’s confidence explains the thanks-but-no-thanks response to preliminary talks about a long-term extension during the offseason (not to mention the $10 million he was guaranteed out of college).
Samardzija is 28 years old, but the Cubs believe he doesn’t have as much wear and tear on his right arm because he wasn’t playing baseball every summer and getting burned out on the elite travel teams from a young age.
But with each throw, every pitcher is moving closer to hitting that iceberg and becoming an injury risk. The human body wasn’t built to throw a baseball almost 100 mph, over and over and over again.
“You just put it in the back of your head,” Samardzija said. “It’s not an issue. You don’t play sports that way. You don’t think about things like that.
“I play a certain way. I play all-out and I let it go. If things happen, they happen. So I don’t really worry about it too much. Sometimes it’s fun to see if you can play through a little pain and through a little injury and go from there.”
Sveum loves that football mentality. There are great expectations now. Just ask Samardzija if he can be a No. 1 starter. After all this buildup, another 9-13 season with an ERA close to 4.00 would be considered a disappointment.
All that goes back to the first meeting with the new bosses.
“I just really wanted to let (them) know that I was all-in with this team,” Samardzija said. “I wasn’t going to have any distraction on the outside and I was committed to being the guy that they needed me to be for this team.”