The Cubs aren’t going all-in with the Hawk Harrelson team-building philosophy. But they recognize that certain players love the big moment.
Jeff Samardzija once proved that on the big stage at Notre Dame, and he did it again on Memorial Day at U.S. Cellular Field, shutting out the White Sox 7-0 with a complete-game, two-hit masterpiece. Some 30 minutes from his backyard, in front of his family, friends and 30,631 fans, he certainly looked like a No. 1 starter.
“I’ve just kind of always been that way, as long as I can remember,” Samardzija said. “Sometimes you can lull me to sleep with other games that aren’t that important and that’s something I need to get better at.”
You almost fell asleep before the game listening to all the nature vs. nurture questions general manager Jed Hoyer answered about developing patient hitters, on-base percentage and drawing more walks. This almost 10 years after the “Moneyball” book was published and exposed all those secrets, and 16 months after the movie received a Best Picture nomination.
Harrelson stopped into the visiting clubhouse postgame, saw a few people and checked the Blackhawks score on a flat-screen TV. “The Will to Win” messaging won’t go viral at Clark and Addison, but the Cubs know they’re going to need some swagger.
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And the franchise might have it with Samardzija and Matt Garza, who exhibits qualities valued by this front office, if you look beyond the Johnny Cueto rant, constant trade speculation and a few personality quirks.
Hoyer watched it as a Boston Red Sox executive in 2008, when Garza carried the Tampa Bay Rays and captured the ALCS MVP award.
“You want that fieriness and that fight,” Hoyer said. “We lost Game 7 of the ALCS in part because of that mentality. He came out and just dominated. He wants the ball in big spots. He’s a great teammate. He’s always on the top step cheering his teammates on and that toughness and that fire is something you always want. We need a lot of guys like that.”
Hoyer then pivoted to his perception of how the team’s personality is sometimes viewed.
“I do take offense – I know that there’s been some people like commenting that our team is laid-back,” Hoyer said. “That’s certainly not the type of team you want to be. You want to have some guys with some fire, with some fight in them. And Matt certainly does bring that to the table.”
The Cubs are 20-30 and it’s hard to pinpoint when exactly their players and staffers began getting questions about another summer sell-off, maybe last September, probably sometime around Thanksgiving and definitely by spring training.
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But if Garza stays healthy and Samardzija (3-6, 2.85 ERA) keeps developing and showing more consistency, why not build around that 1-2 punch?
“Every day is the same, regardless of who you’re playing or the situation,” Samardzija said. “You approach every game like it’s a playoff game. I’m learning that and I’m getting there and getting better.”
White Sox manager Robin Ventura compared Samardzija’s stuff to that of New York Mets phenom Matt Harvey. Cubs manager Dale Sveum tied this together with Samardzija’s Opening Day performance and final start last season – eight scoreless innings and a complete game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Samardzija was in complete control, retiring 12 straight hitters from the fifth inning on and taking a one-hitter into the ninth. When it’s on, Sveum said, Samardzija’s splitter is “pretty much an unhittable pitch.” Between that and the high-90s velocity, Samardzija notched eight more strikeouts to give him 80 through 72.2 innings this season.
Those power arms play in October, but you also need someone who won’t be afraid of the bright lights. Samardzija – who grew up in northwest Indiana – loves playing on the South Side and being in the middle of this Cubs-Sox rivalry.
“There’s just a comfort level when you get to sleep in your own bed and drive 15 minutes to the park and come play,” Samardzija said. “You got the smell of the steel mills in the background. It’s not the most beautiful scent in the world, but it smells like home. It’s just fun. I love competing.”