July 29, 2008

The whole nine yards

Jeff Samardzija had a long way to go from University of Notre Dame pitcher to Major League pitcher when he performed in his last game for the Irish against the College of Charleston on June 2, 2006.

A three-run home run ended Samardzija's day-and collegiate career-as the Irish eventually fell in 16 innings before exiting the NCAA tournament the following day against Kentucky.

Samardzija, the eventual fifth-round draft choice of the Chicago Cubs and $10 million man, had just finished his career with a 21-6 career record, but some equally concerning numbers.

• Opponents hit .272 against him as a sophomore and .272 again as a junior.

• His earned run average was 3.89 as a sophomore and 4.33 as a junior.

• His strikeout-to-walk ratio was a pedestrian 159-to-84 in 240 innings pitched. He had just 61 strikeouts in 97 2/3 innings pitched his junior season.

Samardzija continued to rack up concerning numbers in the minor leagues after the Cubs opened the bank for him. When the Cubs called him up last week to the parent club, he had a 13-17 three-season minor league record with just 166 strikeouts in 285 innings pitched.

In 2007, he was 3-8 with a 4.95 earned run average on the Single A level. This season, he was 3-5 with a 4.86 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 76 innings in Double A.

But then an interesting thing happened to Samardzija when he was called up to Triple A Iowa. He went 4-1 with a 3.13 ERA. Suddenly, Samardzija was striking people out at a one-per-inning rate (40 in 37 1/3 innings).

With Cubs closer Kerry Wood nursing a nagging blister that won't go away, they called up Samardzija, who threw two strong innings (allowing one run in his debut Friday), and then picked up a two-inning save against the Marlins Sunday.

Suddenly, when the lights were the brightest, Samardzija shined brightly.

Surprised? Not if you watched Samardzija develop into Notre Dame's all-time leading receiver on the football field.

A mere afterthought in the Irish passing game the first two years of his career-he caught just 17 passes for 274 yards as a sophomore-Samardzija didn't even open the '05 season as a starter. (Rhema McKnight and Maurice Stovall were the starters).

But Samardzija quickly developed into Brady Quinn's favorite receiver, snagging 77 passes for 1,249 yards and 15 touchdowns in '05 and another 78 for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior.

The career-defining play in Samardzija's collegiate scrapbook came on Oct. 7, 2006 against UCLA in Notre Dame Stadium. With the offense sputtering all afternoon, the Irish trailed, 17-13, when Quinn hooked up with Samardzija for a 45-yard touchdown with 35 seconds remaining. Samardzija weaved his way through traffic with ease, and then confidently sauntered into the end zone with the football extended out in front of him.

Samardzija certainly was a much more polished wide receiver than he was a pitcher when he chose the diamond over the gridiron. But in addition to being one of the most unique athletes in America, he also was pragmatic. Let's see, $10 million guaranteed in baseball, or a non-guaranteed contract and a much greater risk of injury in football?

In the end, it was a well-reasoned if not easy decision for Samardzija.

But now there was the matter of developing into a Major League pitcher, and Samardzija was a long way off. What many Irish fans don't remember or never knew is that Samardzija changed his entire pitching repertoire between his sophomore and junior seasons.

He changed the grip on his fastball. He went from a curveball to a slider. He learned a split-finger fastball. Heading into his final year of college baseball, he changed virtually everything. He was predominately a fastball pitcher as a sophomore and was a pitcher in transition his junior year, which made his numbers less dominant.

So it's no wonder that his first couple of seasons in the minor leagues were a bit of a struggle. He was still finding himself as a pitcher, and the Cubs knew that. That's why they were willing to look beyond the obvious and spend a bundle on a pitcher who had yet to establish his identity on the mound.

General manager Jim Hendry, a long-time friend of then Irish baseball coach Paul Mainieri, listened. Samardzija would be the real deal-in time. Once they worked with him and he found himself, he had the rest of the ingredients to be a nasty presence on the mound.

When Samardzija took the mound for the Cubs Friday, his adrenaline was really pumping. He hit 97 mph on the radar gun, which is a bit above his typical range. He gave up two hits, including a run-scoring double to Jorge Cantu that allowed the Marlins to tie the game at 2-2. He had some difficulty with his command.

But then Samardzija settled down. He retired the last four hitters he faced, including all-star Dan Uggla on a weak grounder back to him.

Sunday, he was even sharper, retiring all six hitters he faced to record his first Major League save. He made another all-star, Hanley Ramirez, look bad on a splitter four inches above the ground for strike three, and then did the same to Jeremy Hermida, who hit three homers in two games to put a thorn in the Cubs' side.

Samardzija ended the game when he got Cantu-the last player to get a hit against him Friday-to line out to a diving Jim Edmonds in center field.

Samardzija has the element of surprise on his side at the present time. These hitters likely haven't seen him. If they have, it was for an at bat or two in March. Plus, he had 41,000 screaming fans on his side this past weekend. Let's see what happens when he makes an appearance during this current four-game road trip in Milwaukee.

Of course, screaming fans do not negatively impact Samardzija. He set Notre Dame's all-time reception mark in front of larger and louder crowds than this. Plus, most Cubs road games are pseudo-home games the way their fans travel, much like Notre Dame football fans.

Samardzija has plenty of challenges ahead. Although he has a slider and a changeup, he is predominately a two-pitch pitcher at the present time-fastball and splitter-which makes him a better relief candidate than starter. His slider is still a work in progress, and his changeup-which he added between his sophomore and junior seasons-is further away.

His fastball won't be in the upper 90s all the time, but that's okay. He gets excellent late movement even in the low-to-mid 90s. The splitters he threw to Ramirez and Hermida were unhittable. Right now, his slider is more a change of speed than it is an out pitch. He has had some control issues in the past. Once a "book" is developed on Samardzija, hitters won't be quite as likely to chase his stuff out of the strike zone.

In addition, Samardzija now must make the transition from starter to set-up man and/or closer. With Wood still sidelined, manager Lou Piniella already has asked Samardzija to wear a couple of different hats. He'll have to condition his arm to pitch on back-to-back days. In the heat of a pennant race, he'll be needed.

But this doesn't look like the same Jeff Samardzija that pitched in A and AA ball. That's because it's not. This is the Jeff Samardzija who thrives when the lights are the brightest.

Yeah, he was ready for his Wrigley Field debut, the same way he was ready to make the game-winning touchdown against UCLA, the uncatchable deep ball against Purdue in '05, and countless other passes that were well defended but still caught with his vise-like hands.

Not every outing will be as smooth as Sunday's two-inning save. But when Wood eventually comes off the disabled list, it won't be Samardzija heading back to Triple A. Piniella likes his cool under pressure, if not his long hair.

Samardzija-and his hair-are here to stay.



 

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