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updated: 9/27/2011 10:11 PM

Samardzija hopes new direction leads to Cubs rotation

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  • Cubs reliever Jeff Samardzija is finishing his first full season in the majors.

    Cubs reliever Jeff Samardzija is finishing his first full season in the majors.
    Associated Press File/September 2009


SAN DIEGO -- Jeff Samardzija always has been a work in progress.

Perhaps for the first time in his still-young baseball career, that progress has been noticeable. The 26-year-old Cubs reliever is finishing his fourth season with the team but the first in which he has spent the entire season in the major leagues.

Samardzija entered Tuesday's game against the Padres 8-4 with a 2.98 ERA. His 8 wins as a reliever were the most since Lee Smith won 9 out of the pen in 1986. In 87⅔ innings, he had given up 63 hits while walking 49 and striking out 86.

"I'm happy with the direction I went in, for sure," he said. "I knew after '08, '09, we were going to have to take a couple strides in a different direction to really become the pitcher I want to become and cut down on certain things -- walks and being in the zone more, especially early in the count.

"I think throughout this year, I did that. What really got me excited were the times where it did kind of slip up, that next time out or maybe that next inning, I made the adjustment."

Samardzija's story is well-known. The Cubs gave the former Notre Dame wide receiver a major-league contract to forgo football.

He was able to overpower hitters when he came up in 2008, but he found out over the next couple of years that pitching involves a lot of subtleties and more than having just one or two pitches.

"In '08, I had a lot of success when I first came up, but I was really oblivious to a lot of everything else," he said. "You're just kind of out there pitching and not really pitching with a game plan. You're young, and you're just trying to throw."

One big change for Samardzija was in pitching coaches. He went 11-3 last year at Class AAA Iowa, mainly as a starter, after some fits and starts in Chicago.

While at Iowa, he worked often with then minor-league coordinator Mark Riggins, now the major-league pitching coach.

Riggins replaced Larry Rothschild, who went to the Yankees. The change in "voice" might have done Samardzija some good, but he still "hears" that other voice.

"Larry was great," Samardzija said. "A lot of times, you don't appreciate things until they're gone. Larry being my first and only pitching coach I've had for three years, you kind of get used to it.

"Having Riggy with me in the minor leagues, he knew me as a person, on a personal level. He knew how I worked and how I operated. It definitely helped.

"But I can think of multiple times this year when I came across situations and I could hear Larry saying something he told me two years ago that two years ago I couldn't, a., execute or, b., comprehend just because I wasn't at that level yet to take everything he was giving me.

"I just needed my mind and my body baseball wise to catch up to what information was coming in."

As for the future, if the Cubs need a starter next year, he's more than ready to try give it another go.

"It's pretty well-documented that I would love to be a starter," he said. "That's my goal, period. That's what I want to do. Every one of those five guys is important to a team's outcome of a season.

"I'm not saying that what I did this year or that the guys in the bullpen aren't important. I have a very huge appreciation for those guys in the bullpen."

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