ST. LOUIS – This is what Jeff Samardzija wants.
The defending National League champs. Nirvana and Pearl Jam blasting inside the clubhouse before his start. A rivalry game with a crowd of 43,903 into every pitch. (OK, maybe excluding the people on the AT&T Rooftop, a new Wrigleyville knock-off.)
Samardzija enjoyed Friday night’s 6-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, even if it took 11 innings and lasted four hours and nine minutes. He gave props to his catcher, Welington Castillo, who won it by drilling Trevor Rosenthal’s 95 mph fastball an estimated 426 feet into the left-center field seats.
Samardzija doesn’t mind being the villain, getting booed after hitting Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly’s left arm with a 93 mph fastball in the fifth inning. Samardzija moonwalked off the mound after striking out Peter Bourjos looking to end the seventh with his 98th and final pitch.
“It feels good,” Samardzija said. “There’s really no other way to put it. I like to compete. And if I’m going to compete, I like to compete against the best and that’s the Cardinals. Over the past five years, you can’t say there was a better team in the league.
“The history they have, the lineup they have – it goes on and on. I praise them every time we play them.”
Samardzija gave up one run in seven innings, working efficiently with four strikeouts against zero walks while leaving his ERA at 1.29 through three starts. Until Ryan Sweeney’s RBI single in the seventh, the last time the Cubs (4-6) scored a run for Samardzija was last September.
“Jeff just loves to pitch,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s a very emotional, very driven individual. There’s a lot of fire in him. He’s a competitor. He wants to be out there. Does this heighten it a little bit? It might. But I know every time he goes out there, he’s going to give us his best.”
Samardzija has a track record in big games, from his emergence as an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame to last year’s complete-game shutout against the White Sox to his seven scoreless innings on Opening Day against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“Now he’s learning how to pitch,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He repeats his delivery, fields his position and controls the running game. He’s definitely growing. (He’s a) fierce competitor.
“I love the guy. I love watching him pitch.”
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Trade or extend Samardzija is a space-filler debate. All indications are he will be gone by the July 31 trade deadline, unless something completely unforeseen happens. (This is where Matt Garza struck out Matt Holliday with a 96 mph fastball and reached for his elbow in July 2012.)
Both sides know the score. Samardzjia understands the market forces – even bad starting pitchers strike it rich in free agency. He knows it’s about getting paid for what he might do more than what he’s actually done so far. But he’s putting up top-of-the-rotation numbers now, even if it hasn’t translated into wins and losses yet.
Samardzija also wants to win. He doesn’t want to get stuck in an endless rebuilding cycle. He still thinks the Cubs could make it interesting this summer.
“We know we’re going to play a lot of close games and we’re ready for that,” Samardzija said. “The more close games you win, the more confidence you build. And then all of a sudden you start seeing yourself win by four or five runs. You got to start somewhere. If we need to start this thing off by scraping up some one-run victories, then so be it.
“Sometimes it takes a game like this to prove to yourself and to the team that we belong here and we’re going to be here for awhile.”