Chicago Cubs

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.

Joe Maddon thinks Ben Zobrist getting ejected would be a sign of the apocalypse

Joe Maddon thinks Ben Zobrist getting ejected would be a sign of the apocalypse

As the rest of the world readies for the upcoming solar eclipse on Monday, Joe Maddon is thinking about the apocalypse.

That's because Ben Zobrist very nearly got ejected from a ballgame Wednesday night, something that seemed essentially impossible just a few days ago.

When Zobrist squared around to bunt in the bottom of the ninth inning, he was peppered with a 96 mph fastball right on the leg. The Cubs veteran was initially awarded first base — which would've loaded the bases with nobody out — but then was called back by first base umpire Chris Conroy who insisted Zobrist did not pull back his bunt and thus the pitch was a strike.

Maddon raced out and very quickly got ejected from the game. He admitted it was the angriest he'd been in a Cubs uniform.

Zobrist also was giving the umpiring crew an earful about such a crucial play in a crucial spot of a tie game.

Zobrist was not ejected and the Cubs eventually won two batters later, but had the game continued, Zobrist would've had a tough time controlling his anger moving forward.

Envisioning Zobrist getting ejected elicited laughter from Maddon, who said it would've been more entertaining to see Zobrist get tossed than Kris Bryant's ejection last month.

"This would've been really good," Maddon said. "Because he would've had like contrived anger after the fact. Had the game continued, I really believe something may have occurred that we've never seen before. 

"You got the eclipse coming up Monday. You got Zobrist arguing with an umpire and possibly getting kicked out and an eclipse within three or four days. That's where you worry about the apocalypse at that point."

Zobrist is one of the most mild-mannered players in the game and has never been ejected in his 12-year career. Maddon always says that whenever Zobrist is actually arguing with umpires, he must really have a point, especially on a religious day like Sunday.

However, the well-respected 36-year-old just had an issue over the weekend where he struck out looking in Arizona to end the game and petitioned hard for robot umps and an electronic strike zone.

"It keeps happening to Zo, of all people," Maddon said. "I mean, Zo does not deserve this. If any baseball player does not deserve that kind of inequities, it's him. 

"Listen, I really believe had I not done that and the game ended differently, you might've seen Zo's first ejection."

It was Maddon's second ejection of the season and he expects to get fined after laying into the umpires 15 minutes after the game ended in his media session. 

He said he has no grudges to carry over into Thursday and doesn't anticipate the umpires will, either.

Wednesday's ejection reminded Maddon of the time a few years ago when he "ejected" three umpires from a game on the South Side of Chicago when he was managing the Tampa Bay Rays.

But he doesn't get tossed as much now with instant replay really cutting down the need to argue.

"That thing yesterday is not reviewable," Maddon said. "So when it's not reviewable, that's where you could get upset. Check swings, hit by pitch in that situation. There's not a whole lot to get angry with anymore.

"Balls and strikes? But it's so hard to argue balls and strikes from the side [in the dugout]. I can see up and down; I can't see in and out. I'm really wrong a lot on in and out, so I don't even say anything anymore. And so again, it's just about moments like that that are not reviewable, those are the ones that I think can create a little bit of a stir.

"But it doesn't happen that often. I'm not looking for it just to go argue. I just thought it was egregiously bad yesterday."

There is currently a report filed with the league about the incident, though that is standard procedure for any ejection.

Maddon said twice during his postgame rant Wednesday that he's "playing nice in the sandbox" with the league. When asked about what he meant by that, he gave a cryptic answer:

"There's other things that nobody's aware of that I've been playing nice in the sandbox about."

Fuming over ninth-inning call, Joe Maddon is done with playing nice in MLB sandbox: ‘That’s asinine’

Fuming over ninth-inning call, Joe Maddon is done with playing nice in MLB sandbox: ‘That’s asinine’

A walk-off win in the middle of a pennant race didn’t dull the edge in Joe Maddon’s voice, the Cubs manager blasting Major League Baseball and expecting to be fined for his rant in the Wrigley Field interview room.    

“That’s asinine,” Maddon said after Wednesday night’s 7-6 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, fuming over the ninth-inning at-bat where Ben Zobrist showed bunt and got drilled by Wandy Peralta’s 96-mph fastball. Home plate umpire Ryan Blakney signaled for Zobrist to jog to first base, only to have first base umpire Chris Conroy call strike two.

“Listen, I don’t even know what to say about that call,” said Maddon, who stormed onto the field and got ejected for the second time this season. “We’ve had different things happen, and I’ve been playing really good in the sandbox. Really good. And I’m not right now. That call cannot be made under those circumstances.

“I can understand if the guy’s actually swinging, and all of a sudden you get like a check swing. But he’s bunting – and then trying to get out of the way – and you’re going to call a bunt?

“There’s no way any hitter under those circumstances – with the ball coming at his thigh – is going to bunt through it and then get hit in the thigh.

“That really almost did cost us the game. Fortunately, we came back, they made their wild pitch. But I’ve been playing good in the sandbox. That was wrong.”

Zobrist – who called for an electronic strike zone after watching a controversial strike three end Saturday’s loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field – still managed to put the ball in play, move up Javier Baez and Jon Jay and keep the pressure on the last-place Reds.  

“I tried to pull the bat back, but there was nowhere for me to go,” Zobrist said. “It started right at me, and was going down towards my ankle, and I could not physically pull it back and still pull my ankle up at the same time. I tried to pull my ankle up and (Conroy) thought I was offering at it, apparently.”

Imagine the reaction if the Cubs hadn’t regrouped and maintained a 1.5-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central.

“I know that instant replay is not perfect,” Maddon said. “But all this little minutia needs to be looked at as we move this along, because that impacted the game. That’s bases loaded, nobody out. It’s a different at-bat for (Albert) Almora. It’s a different thought for their pitcher. Everything’s different. The world rotates differently at that point.

“To influence a game like that is wrong. And, listen, the guy’s a good guy. I think he’s a good umpire. But I’m not going to concede consistently to these guys. You can’t make that mistake.”