Fulfilling potential, Samardzija ready for Opening Day

Fulfilling potential, Samardzija ready for Opening Day

MESA, Ariz. -- He used to catch passes in front of more than 80,000 people on Saturdays in South Bend, Ind., plus millions more watching on television. More than 100,000 have watched him play in college bowl games. Jeff Samardzija can handle the spotlight.

But Samardzija admits he'll be a little nervous when he takes the mound Monday at PNC Park at 12:35 p.m. CT, making his first Opening Day start. The right-hander will get the Cubs' season started where his ended last year on Sept. 8.

Samardzija was on an innings limit in his first full season as a starting pitcher in 2012. This year, there are no limits. Cubs manager Dale Sveum named the former All-America wide receiver his No. 1 starter in early March. It was a no-brainer.

"He's a guy who players rally around because of his work ethic, his bulldog mentality when he's on the mound," Sveum said.

Samardzija earned the assignment because of how he developed during last season. In his final start, he threw a complete-game victory against the Pirates, striking out nine.

"I thought that was a big start," Samardzija said. "I thought the most important start last year was the Atlanta start [July 2]. I didn't have a good June, but if you look at from that Atlanta start on, it progressively got better every time out and culminated with that Pittsburgh game.

Against the Braves, he gave up one run and struck out 11 over seven innings. From that point until year's end, he compiled a 2.58 ERA in 13 games.

"That's been the roll I've been going on, and I want to keep the momentum going," he said. "It's funny we start back in Pittsburgh, and I look forward to it."

Samardzija and Sveum bonded on the day the manager was named in November 2011. They met at Wrigley Field, and Samardzija stressed his commitment to baseball at that time.

"Me and Dale were on the same page from Day 1 with what we wanted," Samardzija said. "We didn't want any personal accolades, we just want to win ballgames. That is it. It doesn't matter when you pitch, or where you pitch or what the lineup is. I felt that from him when I met him at Wrigley the day he was hired. It's a good thing to have. There's no drama, you just go out and play ball."

 

Since he was drafted by the Cubs in 2006, Samardzija, 28, has made it clear he wants to start, but early on he was shuffled between the rotation and bullpen. At one time, he did consider playing both sports.

"I wanted to leave all my options open," he said. "Being a young kid, you don't know what you want all the time."

So, why baseball?

"I loved both," he said, "and I knew it would be a tough decision. After playing a summer with the Cubs [in 2006], and before I went back for my senior year of football, it really opened up my eyes as to what the sport was all about. I was intrigued at the amount of time I had put in football that I hadn't put in baseball. I was intrigued by what the ceiling was, and where we could get to. I had fun playing baseball and that was the most important thing."

At Notre Dame, student athletes were allotted 20 hours each week for sports. Samardzija spent 16 hours on football and four on baseball. He does watch NFL games and sometimes wonders "what if," but he's happy with his choice.

"You can't have your ice cream and eat it, too, all the time," he said.

That football mentality has both helped and hurt him. Sveum called it a "gorilla" approach to pitching. That may be the biggest change in Samardzija last year as he learned how to pitch rather than just trying to blow fastballs by hitters.

"Early in my career, I had to battle too many emotions and having that [football] mentality," he said. "To kind of suppress that for a while and learn how to pitch as a pitcher helped a lot. There are certain times when you need that -- you need that little extra energy, extra fire to get through tough situations. But everything has to be in check and under control."

It didn't take long for Sveum to see that Samardzija could be the ace of the Cubs' staff.

"It made sense as a big-body guy who should be able to handle the load and a guy who has learned how to pitch in the big leagues and had to learn how to be a starter," Sveum said. "I wasn't taken aback [at that meeting in 2011], but it was actually, 'Yeah, man, if this works out, this could be kind of special.'"

It all gets started Monday.

"I've gone through some humbling baseball experiences in '09 and '10 that put a lot of things into perspective," Samardzija said. "The best thing as an athlete is all your hard work -- you see positive gains from it. It gets you to keep working hard and keep improving. You get a little taste of success and you want that to keep going. I feel that's where I'm at now and I want to keep the ball rolling."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.