Cubs

Samardzija has a big chip on his shoulder

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Samardzija has a big chip on his shoulder

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.

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi to talk all things Chicago baseball as the Cubs take on the Braves and the White Sox look to get a win in Boston.

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: