Cubs: Jeff Samardzija brings his A-game on Opening Day

Cubs: Jeff Samardzija brings his A-game on Opening Day
March 31, 2014, 7:15 pm
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PITTSBURGH — Jeff Samardzija loves the attention, loves the adrenaline rush. He wouldn’t be afraid to start a playoff game in October, and that will intrigue the contending teams calling the Cubs this summer.

Samardzija vowed that he wouldn’t let any of the trade speculation become a distraction. He kicked off another prove-it year by throwing seven scoreless innings in Monday’s 1-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

Samardzija’s a big-game pitcher on a team that won’t have many big games this season. He’s a short-term asset for a front office looking long-range at 2016 and beyond. He’s keeping score in contract negotiations while the franchise is controlling costs.

But Samardzija found himself in the right place at the right time on Opening Day, even if meant another frustrating no-decision. It would be fun to see what he would do when all 32 starts really matter instead of playing out the string for a 90-loss team.

This became the largest crowd (39,833) for a regular-season game at PNC Park, the beautiful stadium framed by the Allegheny River and the Pittsburgh skyline. You couldn’t complain about the weather, 54 degrees and sunny, for a game broadcast on national television.

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As part of the black-and-gold pageantry, Jim Leyland presented Clint Hurdle with his Manager of the Year award. Barry Bonds ignored the boos and soaked in the cheers while handing Andrew McCutchen his National League MVP hardware. And then Francisco Liriano and Samardzija kept putting up zeroes in a game that would go 10 innings.

“That’s why we do what we do,” Samardzija said. “Every game’s important, don’t get me wrong. You want to approach every game the same. You try to. Sometimes if there’s more atmosphere, it’s a little more exciting. And sometimes you just got to reach down a little deeper and find it.

“I just enjoy pitching in those games. They’re fun, man. You’re getting their best. You got to bring your best. You throw it all out there and see what happens. We’re just looking to build on it and start fast.”

Or else. Theo Epstein’s front office has traded away 40 percent of the rotation in each of the last two summers. Surrounded by reporters in the visiting dugout during batting practice, Epstein declined to say if the Cubs would try to re-engage Samardzija’s representatives one last time before the July 31 deadline. (Don’t hold your breath.) The president of baseball operations has already given his State of Samardzija address.

“We talked about it earlier in spring training. We indulged the questions,” Epstein said. “Right now, we’re just focused on the games and going out and winning. When I think of Jeff Samardzija, I think that I’m really happy he’s our Opening Day starter and look forward to a performance like we saw last year from him (on Opening Day).”

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In that big game, Samardzija put together eight innings of two-hit, shutout ball. He’s now the first Cub since Lon Warneke in 1933-34 to record consecutive scoreless Opening Day starts of at least seven innings apiece.

Samardzija looked more efficient, throwing 89 pitches, getting double plays and notching only three strikeouts against two walks and five hits. He didn’t help himself when he failed to execute a bunt in the fifth inning, getting beat on a double play that turned out to be Major League Baseball’s first regular-season instant-replay challenge.

The Cubs are going to need some good luck and will have to get some bounces if they’re going to keep the clubhouse together, and even that probably won’t be enough. The Cubs were shut out in six of Samardzija’s 33 starts last season, and four times he left with a lead they would relinquish.

“We have a bat, too, so we have a say in how it turns out,” Samardzija said. “We need to take advantage of every opportunity we get. But, ultimately, we’re out there pitching and that’s our job. We’re not here to speculate. We’re not here to say this or that.

“We got to go out and pitch. Those guys are working hard. They’re doing what they can do. We have their back 100 percent.”