MESA, Ariz. – This has been a different spring for Jeff Samardzija. He’s a clubhouse elder statesman now, the media’s go-to guy and a trade-rumors magnet.
Samardzija doesn’t have to worry about making the team or wonder if he’ll get bumped back to the bullpen or answer real questions about whether he regrets choosing baseball over football. He can concentrate on his craft, looking for ways to improve after an up-and-down season (8-13, 4.34 ERA) that saw too many core Cubs players stalling in their development.
Samardzija felt good after throwing three innings and giving up three runs in Wednesday’s 7-5 loss to the Colorado Rockies at Cubs Park. He’s not throwing his splitter yet, focusing on location and pitch sequences while looking ahead to March 31 against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
New manager Rick Renteria has declined to name an Opening Day starter. But it would be a shock if it’s someone other than Samardzija, who will have to live up to high expectations after tabling talks about a long-term extension.
“It’s the pressure I put on myself,” Samardzija said. “When you’re younger, you kind of don’t realize the pressure or don’t realize the severity of the situation.
“You’re just kind of out there young and dumb and just winging the ball around. So I’m definitely going into the season with a mindset of being ready for Opening Day and really working towards that and seeing what I need to do to prepare for that. So we can hit the season running.”
So you’re the Opening Day starter?
“Oh, I don’t know, but that’s what we’re preparing for,” Samardzija said. “Whatever.”
In front of 10,598 fans, Samardzija gave up a leadoff triple that Charlie Blackmon drove into the right-center field gap, leading to the game’s first run. Samardzija struggled in the third inning, hitting Michael Cuddyer to load the bases before walking Carlos Gonzalez and forcing in a run. Troy Tulowitzki’s sacrifice fly to center field drove in another.
Whatever. The Cubs need Samardzija to be The Man for a team that lacks veteran presence and a rotation that will be missing Jake Arrieta, who’s expected to begin the season on the disabled list.
Samardzija is betting on himself after putting up 214 strikeouts in 213.2 innings. In the National League last season, only Cy Young winners Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Cliff Lee (Philadelphia Phillies) and two-time Cy Young runner-up Adam Wainwright (St. Louis Cardinals) reached those levels.
Last year on Opening Day, Samardzija threw eight scoreless innings at PNC Park. That’s where he had a max-effort, complete-game victory against the Pirates in September 2012, knowing he was about to get shut down.
But it can’t be just about the big games. Maybe Samardzija will find some of that consistency he’s looking for here in the Arizona desert.