Samardzija starting to fit the bill

Samardzija starting to fit the bill

MESA, Ariz. -- For the first time since he signed with the Cubs, Jeff Samardzija looks more like a Major League pitcher than an All-American wide receiver.

That was the evaluation from pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who told Lou Piniella that Samardzija used to look like a football player who was pitching.

"This year, [Rothschild said] he looks like a baseball player who played football," Piniella said. "That's a big transformation, and that's a really profound statement as far as I'm concerned. It says he's making the adjustments and really stepping forward and looking like a Major League pitcher."

"It's a good start, I guess," Samardzija said when told about the comments. "That's kind of been the plan since Day 1. Obviously, we knew there'd be somewhat of a learning curve. Like I said since I showed up and before I showed up, I've felt good. It's been a good carryover from the offseason."

It's been hard to shed the football-player label. Samardzija did not want to be a two-sport star but committed to baseball full time when the Cubs drafted him in the fifth round in 2006. However, he did expect to make the jump to the big leagues a little quicker than he did.

"The stubborn side of me didn't [think it would take this long] and expected it to happen overnight," he said. "The more realistic side of me knew it would take a little bit. It's been fun. The curveball has come along well. Obviously, there's some work to be done still."

On Saturday, Samardzija had his second live batting-practice session.

"Today was as good as I've seen him," said Koyie Hill, who caught Samardzija. "I know he's been doing a lot of work on his breaking ball. He got a lot of good reaction from hitters today. There were a lot of checked swings and a lot of swinging through the pitch. That means they're not seeing it very well, and that's good. It was sharp."

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The curve has been Samardzija's offseason project. He made his first Major League start on Aug. 12 against Philadelphia and was then sent down to the Minor Leagues the next day. But he didn't report immediately. Instead, Samardzija and Rothschild spent three very early days at Wrigley Field, getting together at 7 a.m. CT to work on mechanics. The right-hander continued to fine-tune his breaking pitches during a Winter League stint in Mexico.

"It's been all over," Samardzija said of his curve. "Now it's just a hard slurve and it's down in the zone and we're trying to make it with some depth, which is the most important thing. It's a little more dynamic now."

He's not going to throw a sweeping curve like teammate Sean Marshall.

"My arm slot doesn't allow me to throw a 12-to-6 [curve]," Samardzija said. "We're just looking for that hard, late movement -- maybe looking like a fastball and keeping hitters off balance.

"Marshall uses his tall drink-ness to really rip down on the curveball," he said of the 6-foot-7 left-hander. "You see those pitches as a pitcher and there's times you want those pitches. ... In all reality, you might not be able to have all those pitches, so you have to take your strengths and adapt them."

Samardzija seemed on a rapid pace to reach the big leagues when he joined the bullpen in 2008. That year, he compiled a 2.28 ERA in 26 games in relief.

"I think that was just a good situation all around," he said. "It was the pennant race and I enjoy playing in those situations as opposed to non-pennant race situations. They brought me up to be in situations to be aggressive, so my secondary pitches were just complementing my fastball. That was a really good situation. ... It just worked out but it was a good foundation to start."

One thing the Cubs have discovered is that Samardzija does like being on the big stage. Going from the Minor Leagues to a contending big league team is a rush.

"It almost doesn't give you too much time to think, which, being a young guy happens a lot," Samardzija said. "You're just trying to play and that's probably the best thing you can do. The more you play and the more in-depth you get with scouting reports and trying to execute it and stuff, the more things come into play."

He does want to be a starter and is a contender for the Cubs' rotation. Ted Lilly will not be ready by Opening Day after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder in early November, so there are actually two openings available.

"He's throwing the ball smoother, with less effort and his mechanics have improved," Piniella said. "He looks like a Major League pitcher on the mound. He's got natural talent. It's just a question of refining it. We're going to let this guy pitch and around the 20th of March, we'll see exactly where he's at."

This spring, Samardzija went that extra step to show his commitment to baseball. In the offseason, he joined teammates Ryan Dempster and Tom Gorzelanny at 6 a.m. in Chicago to train.

"He took a lot of initiative this offseason and really worked hard and you can tell," Hill said. "It seems like there's a sense of urgency now. He's had a lot of different success in his athletic career. You can really tell when a player turns a corner because it means something to them and it's urgent."

A reporter asked Samardzija about football coach Charlie Weis, who was replaced at Notre Dame, as well as the upcoming football schedule, and the new coach.

Wait a minute. If he's a baseball player, he shouldn't be talking about football any more.

"I've got a little background on it," Samardzija said. "My smarts for football are still there, trust me."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.