June 1, 2006

Samardzija likes having the ball with game on line

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Jeff Samardzija likes to have the ball in his hand with the game on the line.

Any ball. Any game. Any time.

''I just like going out and competing in whatever sport it is,'' Notre Dame's two-sport star said.

After a breakthrough season in football - in which he set a school record with 15 touchdown catches in leading the Fighting Irish to a top-10 ranking - the 6-foot-5, 215-pound junior is hoping to lead the Irish baseball team to a spot in the College World Series.

He'll be the starting pitcher for the Irish (45-15-1) when they face the College of Charleston (43-15), the Southern Conference champions, on Friday in a first-round NCAA tournament game in Lexington, Ky.

He compared starting the NCAA tournament game to playing Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl in January.

''It's a similar feeling. Any time you can get in a postseason atmosphere - any time there's something on the line, whether it's 100,000 people watching or 5,000 people watching - it's still the same feeling when the season is on the line,'' he said.

It's a feeling Samardzija thrives on, Irish baseball coach Paul Mainieri said.

''He's an extremely loose and confident person. I think it helps him be successful. He doesn't get too carried away with himself,'' Mainieri said. ''He believes in his talents and his God-given ability, and he believes he's going to beat you.''

Samardzija, a second-team All-American in football, was 8-2 in 14 starts with a 4.32 ERA this season. He struck out 58 batters while walking 35 and allowing two home runs. His 89.2 innings pitched were the second most this season for the Irish.

Mainieri, who coached Houston Astros closer Brad Lidge and New York Mets reliever Aaron Heilman, describes Samardzija as the finest athlete he's coached.

''You just watch him and he gets better with each passing week. His breaking ball gets better, his concepts of pitching, how to set up hitters, is getting better, because he has the ability to execute what he's being coached,'' Mainieri said. ''He's a great competitor.''

It also doesn't hurt that he throws a fastball in the 90s, including throwing three pitches clocked at 99 mph in his last start against West Virginia. Samardzija allowed four runs and nine hits in the 12-4 victory.

Mainieri doesn't describe Samardzija as the best pitcher he's ever coached, however. He concedes that Samardzija's time playing football has slowed his baseball development.

''He can't go play summer ball, he can't play in the fall, so he doesn't get on the mound as often as some other kids,'' Mainieri said. ''But football helps him in other ways. Being in the spotlight like he is and competing against these great athletes and doing it in front of 80,000 people where the lights are shining brightly, I think that helps him in terms of poise, composure and self-confidence.''

Samardzija believes competing year-round helps him in both sports.

''That's what I do. I enjoy going out and competing,'' he said. ''I enjoy playing both sports with my teammates and sharing the time with them and putting in the hard work that I do.''

Mainieri believes Samardzija has great major league potential. Football coach Charlie Weis describes him as having great NFL potential.

For now, though, Samardzija is satisfied with playing both sports.

''I'm not going to make a decision until I have to,'' he said. ''I'm just having a good time playing ball with my buddies and seeing where it goes.''

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