MILWAUKEE – Lou Piniella refused to deliver the news here when the Cubs decided to send Jeff Samardzija down to Triple-A Iowa in late April 2010.
Piniella – who could have a much softer side behind the scenes – dreaded those conversations anyway. But the Cubs manager at the time also felt like the organization had messed with Samardzija’s development too much.
With Ted Lilly about to come off the disabled list, Piniella’s message became: OK, then do it yourself. Samardzija got a call from then-pitching coach Larry Rothschild on his way back from a diner, picked up his stuff at the team hotel and drove from Milwaukee to Des Moines, where he began to piece his baseball career back together.
Almost exactly three years later, Samardzija is viewed as a potential No. 1 starter. He didn’t get buried by a first inning that probably would have overwhelmed him earlier in his career. He had a manager screaming at the home-plate umpire and getting ejected for him in the sixth inning.
It still didn’t add up for the Cubs on Friday night at Miller Park, where the Brewers jumped out to a four-run lead and hung on for a strange 5-4 victory. (Ever seen someone steal second, steal first, then get thrown out stealing second, like Milwaukee’s Jean Segura?)
From the moment he accepted the job, Dale Sveum saw Samardzija’s potential to throw 200 innings. And whether this rebuilding project is a smashing success or a huge failure, they will play major parts.
Sveum had Samardzija’s back when he didn’t get a called strike three against Ryan Braun in the sixth inning. The veins bulging in his neck, Sveum went after Chris Guccione with a Piniella-esque rant at home plate, pointing, yelling and getting in the umpire’s face.
“That’s not acceptable when a guy’s out there competing and somebody rips their mask off for one pitch,” Sveum said.
Samardzija said something from the mound. (Profanities? “We’d have to go back to the tape on that one.”) Catcher Welington Castillo also turned around and confronted Guccione.
“I don’t know what that was all about,” Samardzija said. “I thought you could have a little emotions out there about some calls, but I didn’t think I did anything out of line. I just thought I made a comment and that was it. And he decided to show me up from behind the plate.”
Samardzija had recovered from a rough first inning. First baseman Anthony Rizzo booted a groundball and Segura executed a hit-and-run, sneaking the ball through the hole at second base. That set up Braun, who hammered an 0-2 splitter over the wall in left field.
Braun celebrated the three-run homer while walking back to the dugout, pointing to the crowd and copying Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers by doing the “Discount Double Check” motion.
“I didn’t see it,” Samardzija said. “That’s the way the game is apparently these days. Everybody celebrates a single and a double and so on.”
A few years ago, Samardzija (1-3, 3.38 ERA) might have unraveled at that point, but he managed to limit the damage. He lasted seven innings, giving up five runs (four earned) as a 5-10 team showed its limitations and frustrations. It won’t be the last time the Cubs lose their cool.
“The thing with Dale is he doesn’t do it unless it’s needed,” Samardzija said. “He doesn’t go out there looking to argue or looking to run out on the field. He never does. If he’s fired up, then there’s something that he didn’t like. But Dale’s always got our side. He’s a team guy. My hat goes off to him in that situation, standing up for his players.”