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.

Cubs hopeful Kyle Hendricks returns before All-Star break

Cubs hopeful Kyle Hendricks returns before All-Star break

MIAMI – The Cubs are hopeful Kyle Hendricks could return before the All-Star break and stabilize a rotation that misses his overall consistency and the unique stuff that made him a National League Cy Young Award finalist last season.

A healthy Hendricks is critical to any second-half surge the Cubs are hoping for now, and so much of his game revolves around feel and the ability to manipulate a baseball in different ways. The tendinitis in his right hand has subsided to the point where he can soon reboot his throwing program.

“He’s feeling good,” manager Joe Maddon said before Friday night’s game at Marlins Park. “He’s going to throw any moment now, tomorrow or the next day possibly. (Athletic trainer) PJ (Mainville) was very optimistic, and so was Kyle.”

The Cubs placed Hendricks on the disabled list retroactive to June 5 and needed at least two MRIs to get a better sense of the inflammation in a tendon on the back of his middle finger.

The year after leading the majors in ERA, Hendricks is 4-3 with a 4.09 ERA and getting an unplanned break after making seven playoff starts in 2015 and 2016 combined. The Cubs aren’t thinking conservatively and waiting until after the All-Star break.

“If he’s ready to go, go ahead,” Maddon said. “This is one of those things in the finger (where) you got to throw the ball and just feel a baseball. If he’s doing that, there’s no reason to hold him back.

“Whatever that pinching feeling was…as long as he’s good to go, I think it’s wise to just let him go and play.”

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 

The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (sore left wrist), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (cut left hand) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

The Cubs didn’t rebook Schwarber to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

All these circumstances made a vintage Jake Arrieta performance during Thursday night’s 11-1 win at Marlins Park so important. Whether or not the Cubs make a blockbuster trade for a pitcher, there are still five-plus weeks left until buyers and sellers will feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”

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On a night where he felt “low energy,” rocked a new buzz cut and covered his right thumb with Dermabond to treat a cut/blister issue that can be traced back to spring training, Arrieta needed only 82 pitches to get through seven innings, completely shutting down a strong Miami lineup except for a Marcell Ozuna home run.

Arrieta’s inconsistencies (7-5, 4.36 ERA) have mirrored a 37-35 team, but he didn’t hesitate when asked where he is at now in a season that has so far not lived up to his Cy Young/All-Star expectations.  

“I’m close,” Arrieta said. “I’m really close.”

The Cubs are still the defending champs. Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. Blocking out a messy personal situation, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell almost hit for the cycle (no triple) the day after getting questions about his divorce and a Major League Baseball investigation. This year’s Schwarber – rookie Ian Happ – also went 4-for-5 and gave the team another jolt.  

“It’s tough to see Schwarber go down,” Arrieta said. “We know that he’s going to be one of our mainstays in the lineup eventually. He’s hit a rough patch and it happens to the best of us. 

“I’ve been there. I talked to him yesterday a little bit about just keeping his head down and going to work and getting his at-bats and trying to find that comfort level. He’ll be back soon. He’s a tremendous hitter who’s going through some struggles and he’s going to right the ship. There’s no doubt about that. He’s too good of a hitter.

“A night like tonight where we pitch well and we score 11 runs, it looks easy. But it’s about consistency and trying to build off of a night like tonight. We’ve got the guys necessary to do so. We’re very capable of doing that.”

Especially if Arrieta gets hot again and shows how he can lift an entire team. 

“To get Jake pitching that kind of quality game again is going to be a big boon to us,” manager Joe Maddon said.