Opening Day starter the next step in Samardzija’s evolution

Opening Day starter the next step in Samardzija’s evolution
March 3, 2013, 6:00 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – Jeff Samardzija already had a meeting scheduled with the new executives who had taken over at Clark and Addison.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer returned from the general manager meetings in Milwaukee with the 52nd manager in franchise history. Dale Sveum hadn’t packed a sport coat for his interviews with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox, so they had to pull off the road in Wisconsin and stop at a Men’s Wearhouse.

With the cameras rolling and flashbulbs popping, Sveum needed a different look for the Wrigley Field press conference on November 18, 2011.

Samardzija met with Sveum that day, part of the full-court press he put on the coaching staff and front office. After a breakthrough season as a reliever, he lobbied the new administration for the chance to start, laying out how he would train in Arizona and why he would be good for 200 innings in the future.

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That experiment took another step on Sunday, when Sveum announced Samardzija would be his Opening Day starter.

“I’ve gone through some humbling baseball experiences in ’09 and ’10. It puts a lot of things into perspective,” Samardzija said. “You get a little taste of success and you want that to keep going. I really feel like that’s where I’m at right now. I just want to keep the ball rolling.”

It would have been shocking if Sveum picked anyone other than Samardzija, even if Matt Garza (strained lat muscle) was healthy and even with Edwin Jackson and his four-year, $52 million contract in the rotation.

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“He’s the face of the organization. He’s a homegrown guy. He deserves it,” Jackson said after throwing two innings (and walking three and allowing two runs) in Sunday’s 4-3 split-squad loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at HoHoKam Stadium.

Samardzija split the 2009 and 2010 seasons between the North Side and Triple-A Iowa. People wondered why Jim Hendry’s front office gave the Notre Dame All-American $10 million to give up any NFL ambitions.

Samardzija will take the ball on April 1 at PNC Park, and there’s some symmetry to that. He reached his innings limit Sept. 8 last year, when he threw 120 pitches in a 4-3 complete-game victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“He’s that guy you want out there,” Sveum said. “He’s a guy that players rally around because of his work ethic, his bulldog mentality when he’s on the mound. It’s a very obvious choice.”

Samardzija finished the season at 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 174.2 innings. Working closely with pitching coach Chris Bosio, he made the adjustments throughout the summer and posted a 2.58 ERA after the All-Star break. Knowing he’d have almost 30 starts to work with made a huge difference.

“It was going to be a whole product instead of a start-to-start basis, which essentially I’d been on before,” Samardzija said. “When I got a chance, it was: ‘This start has to be good or else you’re going back to the ‘pen.’

“To know from spring training on that: ‘Hey, if you have a bad start, two bad starts, three bad starts, you’re still going to be in that rotation,’ that allowed me to work on what I need to work on and mentally prepare to pitch.

“That confidence doesn’t come very often from the staff. A lot of times, that is few and far between. (It) allowed me to take a deep breath and really concentrate on just being a better pitcher instead of trying to prove myself.”

It’s probably no surprise that Samardzija – who likes to wear jeans, hoodies and Vans sneakers – hit if off with Sveum, a “man’s man” who likes tattoos, golfing and having a postgame beer in his office.

“It’s the same thing when you choose your friends,” Samardzija said. “You want honest dudes that are going to be straight-up with you, but at the same time have the big picture in mind about having fun and doing things the right way.

“It’s simple. This game is not a complicated game. You run balls out, you work hard and that’s it. Me and Dale, we were on the same page with that from Day 1.

“We don’t want any personal accolades. We just want to win ballgames. That is it. There are no other ifs, ands or buts about it. It doesn’t matter when you pitch or where you pitch or what the lineup is. I felt that from him when I met with him at Wrigley.

“There’s no drama coming from that. You just go out and play ball and obviously we want to pay them back by playing good baseball and winning games for them.”

As Sveum might say, the kid gloves are off now – no innings restrictions. The Cubs see the size (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) and athleticism and swagger and project a potential No. 1 starter.

Samardzija’s camp wasn’t really interested in a long-term extension this winter, because they feel like he’ll be a frontline guy and should be paid like one. Now it’s time to prove it.