Off the ropes, Samardzija comes out swinging

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Off the ropes, Samardzija comes out swinging

MESA, Ariz. Jeff Samardzija cut off a reporter asking about the possibility of going to the bullpen if the rotation doesnt work out: The worst question Ive ever heard.

Samardzija didnt even crack a smile. The deadpan delivery was perfect. But it does speak to his confidence level and state of mind. What a difference a year makes.

Its up to me to go out and earn, Samardzija said Monday. I want to put no doubt in their minds that pitching every fifth day is whats best for this team.

The Cubs are in a different place now, and they are going to give Samardzija a very long look. Twelve months ago, he was out of options, and the Notre Dame star had done little to justify his 10 million contract.

It was an eye-opening experience, Samardzija said, just because Ive never been in that situation in my life (before). To come out and be on the ropes and really have to perform was big.

Samardzija responded with a breakthrough season out of the bullpen, going 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 88 innings, showing people why former general manager Jim Hendry convinced the All-American wide receiver to give up on the NFL.

As soon as Theo Epstein took over, he made it a priority to add depth to the rotation, a weakness that destroyed last season and led to sweeping changes at Clark and Addison.

Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm are essentially locks. Chris Volstad will likely be the fourth starter. That leaves Randy Wells, Travis Wood and Samardzija among a group fighting for the last spot.

At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Samardzija is built to handle 200 innings, and hes not afraid of the bright lights. While Chicago came down with Theo-mania, he purposely spent almost all of the offseason working out in Arizona.

Hes obviously a different guy than he was a year or two years ago, manager Dale Sveum said. His confidence level is at a peak level right now and hes on a mission.

Samardzija knows how the hype machine works, how easily you can go from being the next big thing to a total bust. He actually thought the Epstein-to-Chicago coverage wasnt that over-the-top, because the step-by-step rebuilding process makes sense.

Samardzija respects the former Red Sox executives running things now and believes in their game plan. But hes still loyal to where hes from and the guy who signed him. Heres how he turned around a question about what he knew about Epstein before:

Nothing, I wasnt a Red Sox fan growing up, Samardzija said. Im still really not a big East Coast fan. Im a Chicago guy and was pretty oblivious to all that. But obviously I knew of them and what theyve done and the way they approach things. (Even with that resume), for me personally, they have big shoes to fill after Jim left.

Samardzija understands the hard work ahead, that you dont hire Epstein and then automatically begin planning the parade down Michigan Avenue.

It seems like Samardzijas been around forever, but hes still only 27 years old. He was fast-tracked to Wrigley Field and got on the 97-win team that was supposed to win it all in 2008.

Samardzija spent most of the next two seasons at Triple-A Iowa, while the Cubs devolved into a fifth-place team. He was asked if he would have been better off with a defined role and the same pitching coach the past few years, a question that can never really be answered.

Looking back on it, did we have the best plan? Probably not, Samardzija said. (But) the most important thing was winning games at that time. You cant sit and tell Lou (Piniella) that we need to save this kid for three years.

Skip, Jim, all those guys wanted to win that year. Thats professional ball. To have a plan is one thing, but sometimes you got to go off the plan a little bit. I just had to learn on the fly, man, and its definitely been a learning experience.

But Im very grateful for everything thats happened and put me in the situation that I am here. You go through some struggles and you come out after that and usually youre a little bit stronger.

Preview: Arrieta, Cubs look to stay hot vs. Mariners today on CSN

Preview: Arrieta, Cubs look to stay hot vs. Mariners today on CSN

Jake Arrieta and the Cubs look to stay hot against the Mariners today, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 12:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Starting pitching matchup: Wade Miley (6-8, 5.23 ERA) vs. Jake Arrieta (12-4, 2.76 ERA)

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Cubs battle rain, explode for blowout over Mariners

Cubs battle rain, explode for blowout over Mariners

A little rain Friday couldn't dampen the Cubs' spirits as they welcomed the Seattle Mariners into town.

The Cubs offense rudely greeted their American League opponent en route to a 12-1 victory at Wrigley Field that included a 74-minute rain delay after the game was well in hand.

As the Cubs have gone through a little offensive lull over the last week or so, they've maintained they need to take what's given to them from opposing pitchers and try not to do too much.

They did that and a whole lot more Friday afternoon, giving the announced crowd of 40,951 fans a lot to stand up and cheer about all game.

"Just a really well-played game," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "We pitched well, we played well, we did everything well. After a really hard-fought series with the White Sox, it was kinda nice to play a game like that today."

Chris Coghlan — just activated off the disabled list Friday morning — got things started with a two-out, two-run single in the second inning and then came around to score on Kris Bryant's single.

Jason Heyward added a two-run homer in the fifth inning and the Cubs then touched up the Mariners bullpen for six runs in the sixth inning, including a three-run double from Anthony Rizzo and a solo homer from David Ross.

In all, the Cubs rapped out 14 hits and walked six times. Bryant led the way with three hits and a pair of walks.

"These days are great," Ben Zobrist said. "It's a mental breather for everybody. When you get up early in the game like that, you allow the pitcher to have some breathing room.

"... I think all across the board as a team, it's a real feel-good win."

It was all the offense starter Jon Lester needed, as he tossed six shutout innings with seven strikeouts for his 11th victory on the season.

"I felt actually a lot better than I have here recently," Lester said. "Still two pointless, useless walks out there. Still trying to clean that up for whatever reason.

"But at the end of the day, we win. That's what you want to do. Guys swung the bats really well. I try to always tell them: 12 runs and an airtight defense makes the pitcher's job a lot easier."

Lester even got in on the offensive onslaught, drawing a walk and scoring a run in that sixth inning explosion. 

With the Cubs up big, Joe Maddon opted to take out Lester for the top of the seventh after 95 pitches, giving way to Justin Grimm and former Mariner Mike Montgomery for the final three innings.

The game got so out of hand, the Mariners brought in infielder Luis Sardinas to pitch the eighth inning (and he promptly retired Addison Russell, Heyward and Javy Baez in order).

The lopsided score also helps the Cubs' new bullpen, giving Aroldis Chapman, Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop the day off.

The Cubs have looked like a different team since the All-Star Break, with their starting rotation once again leading the National League in ERA (2.60) in the second half.

The Cubs also haven't lost a series since before the All-Star Break, taking two of three from the Rangers, Mets and Brewers before splitting a four-game set with the White Sox.

"I think to a certain degree, yes [we have gotten our mojo back since the break]," Zobrist said. "It gave us the rest that our staff needed to get back to the kind of staff that they are and our hitters — we've struggled a little bit coming out of the All-Star Game.

"But today was a good day to kinda bust through with a lot of runs early. Hopefully there's some more games like that to come."

Cubs demoting La Stella for Coghlan just about numbers game and 'rules'

Cubs demoting La Stella for Coghlan just about numbers game and 'rules'

As the new MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated this winter, count Cubs manager Joe Maddon among those who would be in favor of 27-man rosters.

Maddon and the Cubs had to make arguably the toughest roster call of the year Friday as they activated veteran Chris Coghlan from the disabled list and optioned Tommy La Stella to the minor leagues.

La Stella is not an everyday player, but performance has not been his issue at all, hitting .295 with an .846 OPS as a left-handed bat off the bench receiving spot starts at third and second base.

La Stella has also been effective lately, hitting .308 with a .419 on-base percentage in 32 plate appearances since returning from his own DL stint in early July.

"Honestly, it's just about rules," Maddon said of the move. "It's just getting Coghlan back. He was ready to come back. And Tommy had an option."

The option is really the biggest part, and the fact both Coghlan and La Stella are lefties. 

The Cubs couldn't send Matt Szczur down because he is out of options and they didn't want to risk losing him to another organization. (Plus, he's a right-handed bat off the bench who is also performing well with a .759 OPS.)

The Cubs are currently carrying three catchers, but David Ross is a valuable presence in the clubhouse, Miguel Montero is a veteran and a two-time All Star and Willson Contreras is the backstop of the future and has also seen some time in the outfield.

Among the bullpen arms, Carl Edwards Jr. can be sent down to the minors with no issues, but he has a 1.84 ERA and 0.75 WHIP.

When it came down to it, La Stella was the only option for the Cubs if they wanted to bring back Coghlan.

"(La Stella did not take it) well. And he shouldn't take it well, honestly," Maddon said. "It's an unusual moment we're in right now where we have so many guys. This is definitely an advocacy for a 27- or 28-man roster. 

"It's difficult. These are hard decisions. Guys are not gonna like 'em. I don't expect them to like 'em.

"I would not make up any kind of excuse or try to give (the media) any kind of reason other than the fact it was hard to do, (La Stella) didn't like it and again, it's part of the rules and how they are constructed in our game that kinda forces you into different moments."

Maddon said he doesn't expect La Stella to get over this move right away, suggesting it may take a few days before the 27-year-old can come to terms with it.

"The fact that he got it straight up matters," Maddon said. "And that's all you can do. There's no saying, 'You're not playing good enough; you're not hitting good enough.' You can't tell them that. It's not true.

"These are the rules. And in order to retain everybody that we want to, we had to do it this way."

Coghlan — who landed on the DL with a side/rib injury — said the Cubs told him earlier in the week that he would be activated on Friday if all continued to go well in his rehab stint but also said he did not know the corresponding move until reporters informed him in the clubhouse before Friday's game.

Coghlan felt he was ready to come back earlier than this, and his numbers in five rehab games back that up. He posted a .500 average and 1.369 OPS with Double-A Tennessee.

"You gotta get over some of those mental hurdles, but that was kinda done probably the first couple games," Coghlan said. "I had a check swing, kinda did all those things.

"I think it was just key to get some timing back. And obviously it's not the same caliber, but it's what you could get, so I was grateful for that time and (trying to) carry that over here."

The Cubs will have another tough call to make when Jorge Soler is activated from the disabled list, too.

Soler has played in six rehab games in his return from a hamstring injury but is just 2-for-19 in those contests, so the Cubs want him to work more on getting his timing back before activating him.