SURPRISE, Ariz. Jeff Samardzija still looks the same, with long hair, a goatee and the 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pound frame the Cubs think can handle 200 innings.
There are subtle differences. Several times manager Dale Sveum has described Samardzija as on a mission, words that usually dont really mean much in spring training, but you do notice that the swagger is back.
Thats 100 percent correct, Samardzija said. I hold a lot of stuff inside. I dont say too much stuff, but I have a big chip on my shoulder, especially the older I get and I slowly see my football skills diminishing. I got to understand that I got to start pitching good. It means something to me.
At the age of 27, Samardzija believes he belongs in the rotation. He helped his cause by breezing through three scoreless innings in Wednesdays 6-4 win over the Kansas City Royals at Surprise Stadium. He faced nine batters, struck out three and then joked about football afterward.
Thats telling because Samardzija one of the most accessible players on the team could sometimes get defensive when reporters brought it up in the past.
That topics been a rollercoaster, Samardzija said. There are times where I dont mind it at all and I have fun with it and there are times where it really cuts me. I felt like I made that decision based on the right reasons. From my heart, thats what I wanted to do play baseball.
So I never felt like I had to or needed to defend myself. I just felt like people should understand that it was for the right reasons, when the truth is you got to prove to them that its the right reasons.
Like Ive always said, Im trying to be the Cubs pitcher and not the former Notre Dame football player.
Sveum who once turned down a football and baseball scholarship to Arizona State coming out of high school sees value in Samardzijas experience. It takes guts.
To perform on a football field, especially at a major-college level, is a tremendous amount of pressure, Sveum said. Millions of people watching on TV, let alone the 100,000 people (in the stands) on Saturday. The training and the work ethic and the shape you have to be in to play at that level is just off-the-charts.
Samardzija may have been rushed to the big leagues in 2008, but the Cubs couldnt resist his potential in the middle of a pennant race. He spent most of the next two seasons at Triple-A Iowa, tinkering with his mechanics and developing his pitches.
It might not have been the best route, but like I said before, it was the necessary route at the time, Samardzija said. Lou (Piniella) and Jim (Hendry) and all those guys that were here you got to win just to keep your job. In 08 and 09, we were trying to win. And if they thought that me being in the bullpen in the big leagues was the best way to win, then thats how its going to go.
People tend to forget that were just pawns here. Were just the guys on the chess board. Everyone else is making the moves.
Samardzija finally began to see results last season, going 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 88 innings out of the bullpen. Theo Epsteins front office sees his velocity, build and confidence and thinks this could be a legitimate starter.
The biggest thing this regime has done is come in and instilled confidence in me, which has been huge, Samardzija said, because Ive battled these last few years just trying to prove that Im where Im supposed to be.
Ever since Day 1, these guys (have) told me that theyre putting a lot on me, theyre expecting a lot out of me and that they know I can do it. Sometimes (thats) what you need to push you over the edge.