Cubs’ Samardzija continues to progress as a ‘pitcher’

PITTSBURGH — The postgame conversation after Monday’s 3-1 Cubs victory over the Pirates should have been all about Jeff Samardzija’s pitching gem.

Instead, it turned into a frenzy over whether Carlos Marmol should lose his job as closer after one game. Technically, Marmol lost the job for one day in Monday’s game, giving way to James Russell and Kyuji Fujikawa, who earned the first save of his Cubs career.

But enough of that. Samardzija appears to be growing into the “pitcher” the Cubs hoped he’d become instead of remaining the “thrower” that so many young pitchers can’t seem to cease being.

Most impressive watching Samardzija from up high in the PNC Park press box was how he kept the Pirates hitters off balance with his “soft stuff.”

Those observations were confirmed by watching the TV monitors and seeing Samardzija use his two-seam fastball, cutter and slider along with this four-seamer and split-finger.

“I thought it came around later in the game, for sure,” he said of the off-speed pitches. “I thought getting out of that first inning was big after a leadoff walk. I thought my off-speed pitches came around.

“When they (the fielders) are making plays behind you, it gives you the confidence really to mix some stuff up down there, keep the ball down in the zone, and you know they’re going to make some plays for you.”

After a first-inning error by second-base sub Brent Lillibridge, the Cubs got nice plays from Lillibridge, shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo later in the game.

Samardzija’s final line was 8 innings, 2 hits, no runs, one walk and 9 strikeouts. The 28-year-old assumed the role of No. 1 starter last summer, after the Cubs traded Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm and put Matt Garza on the disabled list.

He got the opening-day start because Garza is on the DL again, but he turned in a performance worthy of a staff ace.

Here’s something else that hit me as I was preparing for the season: We’ve heard and read so much about how the new Cubs brass had its perceptions of left fielder Alfonso Soriano change because of Soriano’s performance, clubhouse presence and work ethic.

But what about Samardzija? He was seen as a favorite of former general manager Jim Hendry. As recently as spring training 2012, he was fighting for a roster spot.

So I put the question to Epstein before Monday’s game: Had their perceptions of Samardzija changed, too?

“I don’t think I came in with any preconceived notions about Samardzija,” Epstein said. “It was more of a blank slate. I knew he was a talented guy who hadn’t quite found his place yet. I was really intrigued by what he did in the second half of 2011.

“My first impression of Jeff was very positive, with the meeting we had where he had laid out clear expectations of himself and then quickly followed through on those expectations.

“My initial impression of him, just based on his talent and then the dedication that he showed in that meeting, showed that he was someone worth taking a chance on and giving him an opportunity in the rotation.

“Since then, it’s been nothing but impressing that this guy can be a real leader on this team for a long time to come, and that’s difficult to say for a starting pitcher.

“I don’t think most starting pitchers are comfortable in a leadership role. But I think he’s so dedicated to winning and to this organization that I think he’s got a chance to accomplish that.”

Epstein knows value of a good start

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