PITTSBURGH -- You can think back to 2006, when the Cubs drafted "football player" Jeff Samardzija.
Or you can go back just two years, when Samardzija was just trying to make the team out of spring training under a new baseball regime.
Cubs scouting reportCubs vs. Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park
TV: WGN Monday; Comcast SportsNet Plus Wednesday; Comcast SportsNet Thursday
Radio: WGN 720-AM
Pitching matchups: The Cubs' Jeff Samardzija (8-13 in 2013) vs. Franciso Lirano (16-8) Monday at 12:05 p.m.; Edwin Jackson (8-18) vs. Charlie Morton (7-4) Wednesday at 6:05 p.m.; Jason Hammel (7-8) vs. Wandy Rodriguez (6-4) Thursday at 11:35 a.m.
At a glance: This is the second year in a row the Cubs have opened at Pittsburgh, with Samardzija starting both games. He's hoping for a second straight winning decision. The Cubs were 7-12 against the Pirates last year, 3-7 at PNC Park. Expectations are high in Pittsburgh after the Pirates made their first postseason appearance in more than two decades last year in going 94-68. They beat the Reds in the wild-card game before falling to the Cardinals in the division series. Andrew McCutchen in the reigning MVP. Liriano and Rodriguez are left-handers, so it's likely new Cubs manager Rick Renteria will go with his right-handed hitting lineup.
Next: Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field, Friday-Sunday
-- Bruce Miles
At any point during those years, did anyone realistically think that in 2014, he would be preparing to make his second straight opening-day start for the Cubs?
Probably not, and maybe not even Samardzija himself could have envisioned that. But he'll take the ball on Opening Day for the second year in a row Monday when the Cubs open the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
"It's something you are definitely pleased about," he said as the Cubs closed out spring training. "It's kind of a different thing because it's the first start of the year and there are so many after that.
"But it's definitely something that's cool, just with the ceremony and all the activities that take place and the excitement in the air. It's fun. It's as close to the playoffs that you get in April, right?"
It might be as close to the playoffs as the Cubs get all year, but there's no taking away from Samardzija's story.
Since the Cubs took him in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, Samardzija has fought the doubters: "He's just a football player," they said. After that, it was, "He's just a thrower and not a pitcher."
Every step of the way, Samardzija stood defiant, trying to prove his doubters wrong as he bounced from the major leagues to the minors and from being a relief pitcher to a starter and back and forth again.
But as he looks back now, Samardzija admits he can see where the doubts may have come from. When I asked him how much better a pitcher he'd become, he was able to step back and take an honest look.
"Well, compared to four years ago, I'm about 200 times better than what I was before," he admitted. "It's kind of funny to think about it and how much I was just up there throwing. I was just seeing the pitch that was called and throwing it as hard as I can.
"I've grown a lot, and I'm still not there, which is really exciting. There's a lot of room for me to grow and learn, especially in the mental aspect of things. I feel like I've turned the corner and there are still a few corners left to be turned, which is nice."
During the last couple of years, Samardzija has smoothed the rough edges and developed a more complete repertoire as a pitcher. Last year he tossed a career-high 213⅔ innings in going 8-13 with a 4.34 ERA on a team that lost 96 games.
New Cubs manager Rick Renteria is more than happy to inherit that.
"He's obviously done it in the past, and he's continued to grind through and work and improve," Renteria said. "His ability to pitch, he's trying to keep the ball down more consistently, trying to stay a little bit more under control. He's got a very forceful, strong personality, which is great. He doesn't quit."
That much is to Samardzija's credit, and it no doubt kept him going when others were writing him off time and time again.
"I've always kind of had a chip on my shoulder when it came to that because I knew what I sacrificed to play baseball, something I really loved, something that was close to me and I had given a lot of my life to, and then just to give it up and only play baseball was tough," he said.
"I always felt I had something to prove to myself to justify not playing football. It wasn't like it was an everyday thought, but it's always in the back of your mind that you gave something up, so you have to make the best of this opportunity, for sure.
"At the time, I wasn't a very good baseball player, to be brutally honest. I had a lot of growing to do. Physically, I felt good and my arm felt strong. Maturity wise, on the baseball field it wasn't there, and I just had a lot of growth to do in a lot of different areas.
"It takes time. That doesn't happen overnight."
When Samardzija mentioned a playoff atmosphere in April, it's easy to forget that he was part of the last Cubs playoff team. He worked in 26 games out of the bullpen for the 2008 division winners and got into one game of the division-series loss against the Dodgers.
Whether Samardzija is with the Cubs when they win again is open to question. His name has come up in trade rumors all winter. As a product of northwest Indiana and Notre Dame, Samardzija would just as soon win in Chicago.
But he doesn't seem to have let the speculation bother him.
"It's not like anywhere else when you win here," he said. "It's a special time. Having games left after you've clinched and running around Wrigley in the fall and they give you those special hoodies with 'Playoffs' on them, it's a special time, especially when it's in Wrigley.
"None of that stuff (trade rumors) bothers me, man. The only thing that bothers me is when I go out and don't do my job up to the level that I expect myself to do it. That's really all there is to it.
"I know when I go out there, I have eight guys behind me and the other guys on the bench pulling for me and pulling together as a team. That's all you can ask for, to go out and have fun. I'm not taking anything for granted. That's what this game is all about for me: enjoying it and appreciating it for what it's worth."