Cubs’ Samardzija never doubted path he was taking

No doubt there are many Cubs fans who never thought they’d see Jeff Samardzija starting on Opening Day for the team.

But through a series of events and Samardzija’s own hard work and perseverance, he’s scheduled to be on the PNC Park mound in Pittsburgh on Monday as the Cubs begin the 2013 season against the Pirates.

You might think that would be cause for extra excitement or satisfaction for Samardzija. He says no.

“Very minimally, I’d say,” he said recently at HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz. “I’d say it’s definitely positive. That would be the best way to describe it.

“You think about all the hard work you’re doing, you did in the off-season, you did in the previous years. It’s putting you in the right direction. That always gives you a little extra drive, a little extra energy to work harder when you have those good things happen. That’s definitely exciting.

“I think I’ll be content and happy if the whole season goes as planned, where you start it from the beginning and end it competing for a playoff spot in September.

“I think then I’ll be able to rest my hat and say it was successful. I’m just happy with where I’m at right now, where my body and arm are and just really excited to get this season going.”

Everybody knows Samardzija’s story: the two-sport star at Notre Dame who got the multiyear major-league deal to choose baseball over football. He came up as a reliever in 2008 and then bounced up and down between the Cubs and the minor leagues for a few seasons.

Samardzija finally stuck for a full season in 2011 as a reliever. He fought to make the team in spring training last year before emerging as the de facto staff ace in the second half when Matt Garza went down with an elbow injury.

Samardzija finished 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA, averaging 9.3 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. The Cubs shut him down after his Sept. 8 start because the 174 innings pitched were 5 more than he had pitched in his first four big-league seasons combined.

Garza won’t start the season this year because of a lat-muscle injury, so it’s Samardzija from the No. 1 spot from the get-go.

Did you doubt him? If so, Samardzija said he didn’t notice.

“I was always so gung-ho on what I wanted to do and really oblivious to everything else,” he said. “I understood where I was at and where my numbers were at in ’10 and ’09. I’m not an idiot. I know what the obvious is, and I wasn’t happy with it.

“It doesn’t make my opinion of myself different from anyone else’s. I knew in the back of my head that I just needed some more time and I needed to work a little differently and get on the mound a little more and things eventually would come around. In 2011, that’s kind of what happened.

“You can definitely listen to what people say and use it as motivation, but you always have to understand in your own head where you’re at and where you’re going.”

Samardzija, 28, says his journey has been more a “process” rather than him having a one turning point.

If there was one year that was more important than any other, it was 2010, when he opened the season with the big club but then was sent to Class AAA Iowa.

He gradually moved into a starter’s role at Iowa and went 11-3 with a 4.37 ERA before getting another call-up and sticking for good.

Although it seemed that then-manager Lou Piniella and pitching coach Larry Rothschild were frustrated with Samardzija, he cited their caring about him as a reason for the step forward.

“Larry Rothschild and Lou kept me back three days before sending me to Triple-A to have me throw sides at 7 o’clock in the morning and we changed a really important thing in my mechanics,” Samardzija said. “They didn’t have to do that. They could have sent me to Triple-A and made me go work.

“When you’ve got guys like Larry and guys like Lou and front-office guys that do care for you … Jim (former GM Hendry) and I are real close, they want you to do well. They don’t want you to fail. You need to understand that and work with them to get where you need to be.”

During a visit I made to Des Moines in the middle of the 2010 season, Samardzija seemed upbeat at the time. He says he didn’t get discouraged.

“Never,” he said, emphatically. “I wasn’t going to let that happen to me because I knew when I chose to play baseball that there would always be this doubt that if it didn’t work in baseball, I could always go and play football or vice versa.

“I didn’t want that. I almost told myself from Day One that the decision I make, I’m sticking with through the end even if it doesn’t work out.

“With that mindset, I never really doubted that I was going to make it. I was trying to figure out a way to make it work. Triple-A will do that to you. You get sent down there a couple times, it’s a humbling experience, and you really learn to work. I really learned in Triple-A to come to the field every day and have a schedule and really work my butt off, off the field. Sometimes you need that.”

Although Samardzija continued to fend off questions about football, he said something else kept him going in baseball besides making mechanical adjustments.

“You’ve got to love it, too,” he said. “I love playing this sport. There’s a lot of passion and happiness that comes from working in this sport that a lot of people don’t see.

“It’s kind of hard to put into an interview. You’ve got to be there every day and watch a guy to really realize that.”

So one more time, won’t there be a few butterflies fluttering in the stomach when Samardzija takes the mound Monday in the park where he finished his 2012 season with a complete-game victory, the Cubs’ only complete game of the year?

“No, it’s kind of funny that we ended there,” he said. “It’s like my last thought of playing ended there. This whole off-season has been a little hazy blur, and all of a sudden, boom, we just kind of teleported back to where we were before.

“Obviously, that day and the day leading up to (Monday), there will be some butterflies and a lot of excitement. That’s going to be part of it, how in these big games to control your emotions and be ready to pitch.”

Leader of the staff

Right-hander Jeff Samardzija emerged as the No. 1 startiing pitcher last year, and he’s scheduled to start next Monday’s season opener at Pittsburgh. He had a record of 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA last year. He led the Cubs in these categories in 2012:

Wins: 9 (tied with Paul Maholm)

Innings pitched: 174

Starts: 28

Strikeouts: 180

Quality starts: 17

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