Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011
Posted: 12:54 p.m.

By Tony Andracki
CSNChicago.com

The Cubs didnt know what they were going to get from Jeff Samardzija. At 26, he was out of minor-league options and pitching for his future.

With little more than a week left in the season, Samardzija leads all major-league relievers with 86.2 innings, a sign hes earned the trust of the men at the top step of the Cubs dugout.

The best part about relieving is you get to pitch a lot, Samardzija said. I know the more I work, the better I am. Under Lou (Piniella), if you werent pitching that great, you could be sitting around for a week, eight days. And I know for me, thats not the best situation.

Samardzija owns a 7-4 record and a 3.01 ERA this year while averaging a strikeout an inning and holding opponents to a .194 average, the best mark on the team. In a disappointing season, the emergence of the bullpen has been a bright spot.

Hes a big, strong guy, and hes come on like gangbusters, Cubs manager Mike Quade said.

James Russell also began the season as question mark, and it took awhile before his role was defined. Once Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner went down with arm injuries during the first week of the season, Russell was thrust into the starting rotation.

There he posted a 9.33 ERA and took the loss in all five starts as opponents hit .381 against him. But as a reliever, the 25-year-old southpaw has seen much more success, compiling a 2.23 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 46.1 innings, limiting opposing hitters to a .243 batting average.

 

Ive just been more consistent with my pitches, Russell said. If I make a mistake, I make sure its not over the middle of the plate and it doesnt get crushed.

Russell laughed because hes established himself in a bullpen that should again feature Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol in 2012. Entering play Tuesday, the Cubs rank 11th in the MLB with a 3.59 bullpen ERA, a real asset considering the relievers have pitched the sixth most innings in the league. (Theyre also tied for fifth in the majors with 23 blown saves.)

Samardzija and Russell have picked up good habits from the veterans, observing how they go about their business. Russell also consults his dad, Jeff, a former major-league reliever who saved 186 games across 14 seasons.

The two have banded together, playing long toss and keeping an eye out for each other. When one starts slacking off, the other picks him up and gets him back on track.

Since were going into the game around the same time, we can kind of keep our schedules the same, Samardzija said. Its a day-to-day understanding of where you need to be. When you get out of that comfort zone, thats when things start going awry. Weve been able to stick together and have each others backs.

The work has paid off. As the summer wore on, the two earned Quades trust and found themselves in big-game situations more and more.

Jeff and I have been throwing pretty good out of the bullpen, Russell said. I love it. I like that theyre putting us in tighter situations and relying on us a lot more.

Samardzija boasts a 1.83 ERA in his last 40 outings. Russell carries a 2.38 ERA over his last 34 innings.

We had some new guys step up and really show what theyre capable of doing, Wood said. It was fun watching them get better and have success and go out and dominate at times.

Russell and Samardzija are both under team control for the 2012 season. What their roles become depends on the next regime, though Samardzija clearly has his sights set on a rotation spot. Either way, both young guns figure to be a prominent part of next years Cubs.