Jeff Samardzija's Excellent Adventure

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Jeff Samardzija's Excellent Adventure

In a couple of weeks, Jeff Samardzija will be the Cubs' ace. It will be by default, of course, with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza having left for greener pastures. Nevertheless, the former Notre Dame stand-out known more for his play on the gridiron those days than on the diamond will be the Cubs number one starter -- hard to believe considering where Samardzija was at spring training a year ago. Back then, no one knew if Samardzija was going to make the team, let alone how he would fit in.

But late last season, Samardzija started to figure it out and the turnaround was on. Even I've done a complete 180 on the guy who I dismissed as a character out of the movie "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" completely unworthy of the 10 million signing bonus Jim Hendry gave him in 2007.

Don't get me wrong, he's still a version of Keanu Reeves' Ted likely to utter a few 'whoas' and he's got the long hair that he calls 'a great set of weeds.' (Nevermind that Jeff was only four when the movie came out.) The difference is the guy can pitch and that makes his surfer dude persona more endearing and less annoying.

But I think the real reason I was annoyed with Samardjiza for the last four years was because he was so darn unreliable. His early career was that of bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the majors, and when he was with the big-league squad his home was in the bullpen, where he was maddeningly inconsistent. In 2009, he had a 7.53 ERA in 20 appearances, and an ERA over eight (in limited playing time) in 2010.

I was ready to see him move along, but then something clicked for him and for me and he's turned into one of the Cubs assets for the future and one of the best guys in the clubhouse to talk to. Samardzija is my new go-to-guy.

I asked Samardzija recently about how he was able to go from hanging-on-a-thread to legitimate starting pitcher. (Truth be told, an anonymous source told me Samardzija was notorious for tipping his pitches, something the Cubs have helped him correct, but he's also made some other changes.)

"Coming into camp, (the Cubs) put a lot of faith in me and there was a lot of responsibility with what they expected," recalls Samardzija. "I just wanted to take advantage of that. I worked hard in the off-season and didn't want the opportunity to slip away."

And according to pitching coach Chris Bosio, Samardzija was an eager student willing to be coached and receptive to suggestions.

"We laid out a pretty good plan for him and he's followed it," Bosio said. "Just as far as how to set up hitters, be more aggressive with his fastball, be more efficient which we're trying to stress as a staff. Jeff's following suit, he's a hard worker, he gets it."

Yes, Samardzija gets it on and off the mound. He gets that he plays a game for a living and while he takes his job seriously, he doesn't take himself too seriously. For example, Samardzija pitched on his bobblehead day and jokingly said he felt some pressure to perform well because he didn't want to leave the ballpark that day and see hundreds of bobbleheads smashed on the sidewalks.

He generally lets things roll off his shoulders. Like when he hit Paul Konerko in the face during the CubsSox series. I talked to Jeff the next day and he genuinely felt bad about hitting Konerko and insisted it was unintentional. When I told him he was getting killed on the radio by fans who thought it was bush-league, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I figured as much. It's all part of the game."

Nothing seems to bother the guy. I keep waiting for him to drop a "party on, dudes" a la Ted. The closest I came was last week when the team's nutritionist walked through the dugout. Samardzija admitted to me he eats a lot of junk food. McDonalds, you name it.

"Candy, too?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, all of it," he replied.

"That's going to catch up to one day," I said in my best mom voice.

"It's all good," he said. "I'm not worried about it."

Party on, Jeff.

If Samardzija can keep building on what he's done through 13 starts, he's going to be more than a serviceable pitcher for the Cubs and could finally realize the potential Hendry saw in him five years ago. Even Samardzija admits it's been a long road.

"It's been a long time coming," he admits. "It's nice when you work for something and end up getting what you want."

And if Samardzija sits atop the Cubs rotation even in a dismal rebuilding year, it will be significant.

I can just hear him now in his best Ted voice, "This has been a most excellent adventure!"

And it's sure to get even better for Samardzija.

Why Brett Anderson called Cubs fans ‘f------ idiots’ and loves the idea of pitching at Wrigley Field

Why Brett Anderson called Cubs fans ‘f------ idiots’ and loves the idea of pitching at Wrigley Field

MESA, Ariz. – On an October night where you could literally feel Wrigley Field shaking, Brett Anderson fired off a message on his personal Twitter account: "Real classy cubs fans throwing beer in the Dodgers family section. Stay classy f------ idiots."
 
The Cubs had just clinched their first National League pennant since the year World War II ended, beating Clayton Kershaw and playing as close to a perfect game as they had all season. Anderson kept up the entertaining commentary during the World Series, previewing Game 7 – "We can all agree that we're happy it's not Joe West behind the plate tomorrow" – and tweaking his future manager: "Aroldis (Chapman) might puke on the mound from exhaustion." 
 
In another generation, a veteran pitcher might walk into a new clubhouse and wonder about any awkwardness with a hitter he once drilled with a fastball or some bad blood from a bench-clearing brawl. But overall today's players share the same agents, work out together in the same warm-weather offseason spots and understand the transient nature of this business. When pregame batting practice is filled with fist bumps, bro hugs and small talk between opponents, it becomes trying to remember what you said on social media. 
 
"I'm kind of a sarcastic ass on Twitter," Anderson said Monday. "I kind of sit back and observe. I'm not a huge talker in person. But I can kind of show some of my personality and candor on some of those things.
 
"You look at stuff (when) you get to a new team. I'm like: ‘Wow, man, did I say anything about anybody that's going to piss them off?' But I think the only thing I said about the players is that Kyle (Hendricks) looks like he could have some Oreos and milk after pitching in the World Series. 
 
"But that's kind of the guy he is. Just the calmness that he shows is something that we can all try to strive for."
 
Anderson essentially broke the news of his signing – or at least tipped off the media to look for confirmations – with a "Wheels up to Chicago" tweet in late January. The Cubs guaranteed $3.5 million for the chance to compete against Mike Montgomery and see which lefty can grab the fifth-starter job. Anderson could max out with $6.5 million more in incentives if he makes 29 starts this season. 
 
After undergoing surgery to repair a bulging disc in his lower back last March, Anderson made three starts and didn't earn a spot on the NLCS roster.  
 
"I obviously wasn't in the stands," Anderson said. "Supposedly from what I was told – it could be a different story – but there was just some beers thrown on where the families were. I'm going to stick to my family and my side.  
 
"I wasn't calling out the whole stadium. (It wasn't): ‘Screw you, Cubs fans.' It was just the specific (incident) – whoever threw the beers on the family section. Everybody has their fans that are kind of rowdy and unruly.

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"That just happened to be a situation. But you like those people on your side. I played in Oakland, and they had some of the rowdiest fans. In the playoffs, it seemed like ‘The Black Hole' for the Raiders games.
 
"You have your bad seeds in every fan base. When people are rowdy and cheering on their team and have one too many beers, the next thing you know, you're throwing them.
 
"Just visiting (Wrigley), it's a fun crowd, because it's such an intimate setting and you feel like they're right on top of you and it's so loud." 
 
Imagine the matchup nightmare the Dodgers could've been if their pitching staff hadn't been so top-heavy and manager Dave Roberts could've confidently gone to someone other than Kershaw, Rich Hill or closer Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers had made Anderson the qualifying offer after a solid 2015 season – 10-9, 3.69 ERA, 180-plus innings, a 66.7 groundball percentage – and he grabbed the $15.8 million guarantee. 
 
Anderson turned around and did the knock-on-wood motion at his locker, saying he felt good after completing a bullpen session with catcher Willson Contreras at the Sloan Park complex. Anderson is a Tommy John survivor who's also gone on the disabled list for a stress fracture in his right foot, a broken left index finger and a separate surgery on his lower back.
 
"Yeah, it's frustrating," Anderson said. "When I'm healthy and able to go out there and do my work, I feel like I'm a pretty good pitcher. I don't think I've ever been able to put everything as a whole together in one season. I've had some good spots – and some good seasons here and there – but hopefully I can put it all together and have a healthy season and do my part."
 
The Cubs are such a draw that Shane Victorino signed a minor-league deal here last year – even with more than $65 million in career earnings and even after a fan dumped a beer on him while he tried to catch a flyball at Wrigley Field in 2009.   
 
Anderson wanted to play for a winner and understood the organization's pitching infrastructure. He saw his pitching style as a match for the unit that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year. He was even intrigued by Camp Maddon and the wacky stunts in Mesa.  
 
"It's obviously an uber-talented group," Anderson said. "(It's also) seeing the fun that they're having. I'm more on the calm and cerebral side, but I think doing some of the things that these guys have in store for me will hopefully open me up a little bit and break me out of my shell. 
 
"'Uncomfortable' is a good word, especially for me. You don't want to get complacent. You don't want to get used to rehab. You want to go out there and do new things and try new things and meet new people and have new experiences. All things considered, the Cubs offered the best mix of everything."

Gio, Geo and Gio: White Sox spring training has its own version of 'Who's on First?'

Gio, Geo and Gio: White Sox spring training has its own version of 'Who's on First?'

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Giovanni Soto pitched to Geovany Soto at White Sox camp on Monday morning, and the Internet loved it.

The veteran catcher and rookie pitcher, who share similar names and have been friends for two years, worked together during live batting practice. The unrelated pair, who both hail from Puerto Rico, said they’ve been confused for each other several times since reporting to camp last week. Each has also heard the other’s name being called out and thought it was for them, which has led to more confusion. But those mix-ups haven’t limited their enjoyment of the situation, either.

“It’s kind of surreal that he has the same name, last name,” Geovany Soto said. “It’s kind of weird calling him Gio and he’s calling me Geo. It’s kind of weird.

“With the physicals, doctors, the people for the drug testing, we’ve been confused in all three of those. I’m expecting that to happen. Hopefully I can get a big check on his name and cash it.”

The social media world isn’t alone in its enjoyment of the topic as both players smiled while discussing it on Monday.

Giovanni Soto said the players met two seasons ago when he pitched for the Cleveland Indians and the catcher was in his first stint with the White Sox. They grew up about 20 minutes apart from each other in Puerto Rico and now spend time together in the offseason. But what has made the scenario even more confusing is that White Sox prospect Lucas Giolito is seated only a few stalls away from Giovanni Soto in the clubhouse.

“It’s kind of weird, especially in the clubhouse and on the field because when someone says Geo, we turn around to see if it’s for him or for me,” Giovanni Soto said. “And we also have Giolito, and people call him Gio. It’s weird, but it’s funny too.”

Both Sotos could make the team’s Opening Day roster.

Geovany Soto, who signed a minor league contract in January, is the most experienced catcher in camp and is favored to win a job. Giovanni Soto, who was claimed off waivers from the Cubs in November, is one of several relievers competing for a spot and could make the club if the White Sox decide to carry two left-handers in the bullpen. And while Giolito is expected to start the season at Triple-A, he could reach the majors at some point causing more pandemonium.

“There’s a lot of Geo going on with Giolito, Giovanni and then me,” Geovany Soto said. “And can get pretty hectic. But yeah, it’s fun for us.”