SAN FRANCISCO -- Jeff Samardzija set a series of checkmarks for himself this spring, but somewhere along that road he realized that the destination had changed.
The Giants no longer wanted him to be a 200-inning workhorse, so as Samardzija diligently worked his way back from a season-wrecking shoulder injury, he focused on a new goal. He would pitch more, but throw less. He would mix up his pitches and set up hitters and use his whole arsenal. Most of his nights would be shorter, but hopefully more successful.
On Thursday, Samardzija had the best of both worlds.
The right-hander had the Rockies off balance all night in what became his best start in well over a year, scattering three hits while throwing seven shutout innings in a 1-0 win. Samardzija picked up his first win since last April when Kevin Pillar hit his third homer of the week in the top of the eighth.
Through three starts, Samardzija has a 1.62 ERA. He had a 6.25 ERA last season.
PILLAR POWER 💪 pic.twitter.com/4A11FbHSc3— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) April 12, 2019
"Last year was not a great year for me but I learned a lot," Samardzija said. "To go out and pitch 15 times or so with nothing and a hurt arm, even if it's Double-A or Triple-A, it doesn't matter, you still figure out ways to get outs with B, C stuff. When you do go out there and feel good you don't take it for granted and you take that same approach that you had before.
"It's just not getting hurt with stuff in the zone, being smart, understanding what pitches are going well for you that day and really pound them and use them. It's definitely been a little bit of an evolution for me and a process."
Samardzija had Rockies hitters muttering to themselves early, and Charlie Blackmon nearly talked his way into an ejection after taking a called third strike in the third inning. Samardzija had 13 called strikes in the first three innings alone, matching his high from his previous two outings. He finished with 20 called strikes, and three of his seven strikeouts were looking.
"When the umpire sees you hitting your spots when you're supposed to, a lot of times they give you that strike," Samardzija said. "These umps are paying attention to the game and when you execute, they reward you for it."
Four of the strikeouts came on the slider and three on the cutter, and all were on pitches between 80 and 89 mph. There has certainly been a shift in strategy as Samardzija's fastball has diminished -- it topped out 94.1 mph on Thursday and his season-high is 94.4 -- but it's working. Samardzija entered the night throwing his sinker, slider and cutter between 22 and 27 percent of the time, with four-seamers and curveballs also mixed in. He was equal-opportunity against the Rockies, too, throwing 29 sinkers, 26 sliders and 23 cutters, according to Baseball-Savant.com.
"He's definitely mixing up his pitches more," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He still uses his fastball very well, but he's not a guy trying to power his way through a lineup ... I think it's fair to say he was more of a power guy and he's evolved."
Bochy will continue to evolve with his use of Samardzija. He said even this outing did not tempt him to let Samardzija regularly get past 100 pitches. The focus is on five really good innings. Anything beyond that is gravy, and on Thursday that's what Bochy got. This was Samardzija's longest scoreless start since he threw a shutout on Aug. 28, 2017. His seven strikeouts were his most since Sept. 15 of that season.
"It felt good," Samardzija said. "Today was a good day."