Jeff Samardzija is just getting started

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Jeff Samardzija is just getting started

MESA, Ariz. This had to be the impression Jeff Samardzija wanted to leave in the minds of Cubs coaches and executives before they gathered in the room.

Its unclear if Samardzijas spot in the rotation was ever really in doubt. But he responded by shutting down the Cleveland Indians for six innings in a 2-0 victory at HoHoKam Stadium that became the run-up to Wednesday nights meeting to finalize the roster.

Well see what happens, Samardzija said, but Im really not too worried about it.

The Cubs took the long view and recognized Samardzijas potential, ignoring their glaring need for a power arm in the bullpen to get the ball to closer Carlos Marmol. They saw a 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pound freakish athlete. They had to find out if he could give them 200 innings instead of 70.

This could be an insight into their thinking: Randy Wells, who was supposed to pitch in relief on Wednesday, didnt get the chance to make a final impression. He was pushed back to start on Sunday and seems to profile well as the long man.

The answers will be revealed on Thursday, after manager Dale Sveum sits down with team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and other club officials.

Well all be in the meeting and give our two cents, Sveum said. We got 22 or 21 guys that are pretty much decided and well spend more than four hours on the other four guys.

You go back and forth in all kinds of scenarios and sometimes a guy brings (one up) and youre like, Oh, I didnt think of that one and you got to cover your butt (and) you might spend 45 minutes on (that).

Will they spend much time on Samardzija? He showed that he learned something from his last outing seven runs on 10 hits in four innings against the Colorado Rockies and kept a left-handed Indians lineup off-balance.

Samardzija struck out five, walked one and allowed only three hits. He even tripled and showed off the speed (its still there) that made him a football star at Notre Dame.

Thats what Ive been preaching for years now, Samardzija said. I want to be an athlete. I want to hit. I want to run the bases. I want to field my position (and) show I can do it.

Instead of relaxing after a breakthrough season (8-4, 2.75 ERA), Samardzija purposely moved to his place in Arizona and trained at the Cubs complex. He worked out alongside Ryan Dempster, the leader of the pitching staff.

He really wants it bad, Dempster said. Hes come a long way as a pitcher. Hes 27, but hes got like a 24-year-old arm, because he didnt pitch all those years when he was too busy scoring touchdown passes.

Youve seen huge improvements. Hes got tremendous stuff, great makeup and a lot of confidence. He can do some special things.

From the moment you walked into Fitch Park six weeks ago, you noticed Samardzijas sense of urgency. It almost became a running joke: Looks like Samardzijas headed to the rotation just ask him.

I really learned a lot over these past five spring trainings, he said. Being a young guy, you got to come into camp like spring is the season. Unless youve got a six-year deal and eight years in the big leagues, nothings for sure in camp.

I didnt take anything for granted this year. I just wanted to be ready to go, (so) I knew that whatever happened, I left it all out there.

The new decision-makers are intrigued by how much is still left. The ironic part is that Samardzija was aligned closely with former general manager Jim Hendry, who structured a five-year, 10 million contract that convinced him to not pursue the NFL.

In 13 months, the conversation has gone from the Cubs having to carry Samardzija on the roster, to the team thinking he could lift the rotation.

Ive been in meetings where they can get really heated, because some people are attached to somebody and that means a lot, Sveum said. But sometimes you have to put your feelings aside when it comes to these decisions and (remember) whats best for the 25 guys and the organization.

That likely means Samardzija will get what he wants.

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

WASHINGTON – The Cubs already visited the White House. The Washington Nationals are still the team with so much more to prove.

Dusty Baker needs this October to cement his spot in Cooperstown, the way Joe Maddon put the final bullet point on his Hall of Fame resume. Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant took different routes out of Las Vegas, but only one has the World Series ring to go with the Rookie of the Year/MVP hardware. While the clock is ticking on Max Scherzer and that championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Jon Lester megadeal essentially paid for itself.

Cubs vs. Nationals is supposed to be a circle-your-calendar event. Except the Cubs rolled out a Cactus League lineup on Monday night and Nationals Park featured rows and rows of empty seats amid a crowd of 29,651 where the celebrity vibe became more George Will than A-Rod and J-Lo.

The Cubs still hung on for a 5-4 victory that might have been their best under-the-circumstances win in a season that will hit the halfway point this weekend, showing why they’re the defending champs.

“It is exciting – don’t get me wrong,” Maddon said. “It’s just that we’re attending with a different group than we thought we would be attending this party with.

“And that’s OK, because these guys now are getting the kind of experience that is going to be very beneficial to us in August and September.”

A rash of injuries forced the Cubs to start Jeimer Candelario at third base and Mark Zagunis in right field and Javier Baez kept making highlight-reel plays while Addison Russell rested his sore right shoulder, leaping to grab to a Harper line drive and racing across the left-field line and sliding into the wall to make another spectacular catch in foul territory.

“Games like this is what we need right now – competition,” said Baez, who struck out in his first three at-bats and finished at 2-for-5. “Playing tight games like this will make us make adjustments better and be more in the game.”

With Kyle Schwarber more than 1,000 miles away in Des Moines and hitting the reset button at Triple-A Iowa, Willson Contreras became the leadoff hitter of the day and launched Gio Gonzalez’s fifth pitch of the game into the left-field seats.

The young Cubs manufactured their next run in the eighth inning when Baez stole third base and scored on Albert Almora Jr.’s perfectly placed bunt into the no man’s land between the pitcher’s mound and the first-base line. The bullpen is Washington’s Achilles’ heel and showed with a three-run meltdown in the ninth inning.

Eddie Butler – who began the season in the Iowa rotation – neutralized a powerful Washington lineup while getting just one strikeout in five innings. Maddon pushed a lot of bullpen buttons, not going to Wade Davis for a four-out save and then summoning the All-Star closer when Hector Rondon couldn’t work with a five-run cushion.

In a dramatic finish, Davis survived giving up three hits, a walk and a wild pitch, striking out Ryan Zimmerman with a curveball to end a game that lasted 3 hours and 54 minutes.

“To play so well and not win that game would have really been awful,” Maddon said.

The Cubs needed this with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg looming the next two nights. But for all of their talent and regular-season dominance – three division titles since 2012 and close to a 100-win pace this year – the Nationals still haven’t won a playoff series in a city where the Senators once won it all in 1924.

This could be an epic matchup in October, bursting with stars and pumping with bad blood. Just listen to Baker during his pregame media briefing, responding to a question about a power hitter like Anthony Rizzo batting leadoff: “I ain’t worried about the Cubs. They can do their thing.”

Or Baker dismissing Maddon’s mind games and the possibility of intentionally walking Harper when Ryan Zimmerman is a Triple Crown contender: “It’s a new time and a new day.”

The last word from Maddon, who keeps insisting the 39-37 Cubs have a hot streak in them and that he digs the youth movement: “If this was a spring training lineup, we might get a call.”

Jason Heyward: Banged-up Cubs ready to be tested vs. Nationals

Jason Heyward: Banged-up Cubs ready to be tested vs. Nationals

WASHINGTON – The cut on Jason Heyward’s left hand has been compared to a third-degree burn, an injury that would have required stiches if the skin had not ripped off already.

The Cubs can’t count on their Gold Glove outfielder – or their World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) or ERA titleholder (Kyle Hendricks) – for this four-game showdown against the Washington Nationals. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell didn’t start Monday night while dealing with a sore right shoulder, taking more juice out of this potential playoff preview at Nationals Park.

“Every day’s a test, regardless of whether we’re healthy or not,” Heyward said after taking about 15 swings off a tee. “Bottom line, every team goes through tests. Every single season, guys get hurt. And whoever’s there at the end of the year in the playoffs, they handled that the best and was able to weather that storm the best. 

“This team’s no different. Every single day, you’re expected to win. We expect each other to win and go out there and try to find a way to get it done every day. There’s going to be more tests, but that’s what you want.”

The next step for Heyward would be getting cleared to take a full batting practice.

“It’s getting better every day,” Heyward said, “but until it gets to the point where I can swing every day and take BP, I just got to do a little more waiting and healing.”

Heyward – who sliced open his hand while trying to make a sliding catch in foul territory on June 18 – is eligible to be activated from the 10-day disabled list on Thursday but would probably need some at-bats in the minors first.  

“We’ll let you know,” Heyward said. “I don’t do ‘probablys.’ I probably wouldn’t have wanted to be on the DL, either, but we’ll see what happens.”