For months, Giants starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija tried to simulate the workload of a normal baseball day. Without games at night, that meant adding hikes to his schedule in the mornings, throwing as much cardio as possible on top of normal throwing and lifting sessions. Samardzija was in the Phoenix area until flying to San Francisco two weeks ago, and on a Zoom call with reporters early in camp, he smiled when asked where he would find those morning hikes.
"My baseball career has allowed me to have a nice house of elevation, if you will," Samardzija said. "There are plenty of hills and mountains to walk. I just go out my front door and just go up. You keep hiking until you get tired. Usually when you get to that ghost house that's at the top of my subdivision that nobody lives at and hasn't lived at in 20 years, it's about time to turn around and head back."
Those treks up the hill were supplemented with two more traditional baseball training methods. Samardzija would meet up with Trevor Cahill, Tyler Anderson and Drew Smyly three times a week to throw in a park, and when the Scottsdale Stadium fields opened up to local players in May, the veterans were there five days a week. Samardzija continued to do the tedious daily shoulder lifts and stretches that helped him move past an injury-riddled 2018 season, and he stayed sharp by facing Hunter Pence, who rented a house in Scottsdale during the hiatus, in live BP sessions.
"I faced Hunter a lot this quarantine," Samardzija said. "Take what you want from that. Hunter is a lot of fun to face, but he's super positive, so you don't ever really think you did anything bad."
Samardzija is getting better feedback now that he's back at Oracle Park. He has pitched in intrasquad games with the coaching staff and front office watching and tracking every pitch, and he's likely to face the A's in one of two exhibitions the Giants have set up for early next week. Then, it's an opening weekend date with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
When you listen to Gabe Kapler talk about this ramp-up, you picture Samardzija throwing three innings at Dodger Stadium and turning the ball over to the bullpen. But when you listen to Samardzija, you realize that he's not anticipating any early pitch counts or caution.
"I think that's the problem we're at right now with the game when it comes to pitching," he said. "It's just got to be individual guys on an individual basis. How did they look in their bullpens? How did they look in their live BPs and in a given game?
"It's got to be an individual basis. To lump everyone into one category is wrong, and I know that's what's happening (in the game). It's just going to be all hands on deck and give us what you can."
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For Samardzija, this is a familiar conversation. When he reported to camp last spring the talk was about how the Giants would ask for quality from him, not quantity. Early on, with Samardzija coming off a 2018 season wrecked by shoulder issues, he was quite often limited to five innings by Bruce Bochy. But by the end of the year Samardzija's game log more closely resembled past seasons, and he ended up throwing 181 1/3 innings.
In that sense, history is on Samardzija's side. He genuinely does not care for most stats, but it's important to him that he carries the load expected of a starter, and you can bet that'll be an ongoing conversation with the staff. The Giants want to be careful with their veterans, but Samardzija is confident he'll be built up by his first start.
"I personally think that if things go as planned with the way we've been building up, to be at 75-85 pitches to start the season is not a stretch," he said.
With nine days remaining until the opener, the starting pitchers aren't yet close. Samardzija and Kevin Gausman pitched two innings apiece in a camp game on Sunday. Drew Smyly completed three.
Kapler has said the staff is airing on the side of caution, noting research that shows a slow ramp-up for pitchers helps keep them healthier. He will lean on communication over the coming week, though, and perhaps Samardzija will have some sway there.
"Nobody knows themselves better than Jeff Samardzija," Kapler said after the right-hander's most recent outing.
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There's a lot at stake for Samardzija, and for his fellow starters. Gausman and Smyly also will be free agents at the end of the year, and all would be well served by showing durability during this strange year.
That always has been Samardzija's calling card, and perhaps the Giants should take his public statements seriously as they try to play through a pandemic. As veterans continue to opt out and stars express concern about what MLB is trying to do, Samardzija has spoken forcefully about his commitment to this 60-game season.
He checked into camp and said he's eager to carry a heavy load, no matter how many safety measures he has to jump through every day just to get on the mound.
"We need to make sacrifices this year," he said. "It's going to be a big word this year. We have a job to do. They're paying us to do our job, that we fought for to be fully paid, and to go out there and do our job."