In a couple of weeks, Jeff Samardzija will be the Cubs' ace. It will be by default, of course, with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza having left for greener pastures. Nevertheless, the former Notre Dame stand-out known more for his play on the gridiron those days than on the diamond will be the Cubs number one starter -- hard to believe considering where Samardzija was at spring training a year ago. Back then, no one knew if Samardzija was going to make the team, let alone how he would fit in.
But late last season, Samardzija started to figure it out and the turnaround was on. Even I've done a complete 180 on the guy who I dismissed as a character out of the movie "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" completely unworthy of the 10 million signing bonus Jim Hendry gave him in 2007.
Don't get me wrong, he's still a version of Keanu Reeves' Ted likely to utter a few 'whoas' and he's got the long hair that he calls 'a great set of weeds.' (Nevermind that Jeff was only four when the movie came out.) The difference is the guy can pitch and that makes his surfer dude persona more endearing and less annoying.
But I think the real reason I was annoyed with Samardjiza for the last four years was because he was so darn unreliable. His early career was that of bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the majors, and when he was with the big-league squad his home was in the bullpen, where he was maddeningly inconsistent. In 2009, he had a 7.53 ERA in 20 appearances, and an ERA over eight (in limited playing time) in 2010.
I was ready to see him move along, but then something clicked for him and for me and he's turned into one of the Cubs assets for the future and one of the best guys in the clubhouse to talk to. Samardzija is my new go-to-guy.
I asked Samardzija recently about how he was able to go from hanging-on-a-thread to legitimate starting pitcher. (Truth be told, an anonymous source told me Samardzija was notorious for tipping his pitches, something the Cubs have helped him correct, but he's also made some other changes.)
"Coming into camp, (the Cubs) put a lot of faith in me and there was a lot of responsibility with what they expected," recalls Samardzija. "I just wanted to take advantage of that. I worked hard in the off-season and didn't want the opportunity to slip away."
And according to pitching coach Chris Bosio, Samardzija was an eager student willing to be coached and receptive to suggestions.
"We laid out a pretty good plan for him and he's followed it," Bosio said. "Just as far as how to set up hitters, be more aggressive with his fastball, be more efficient which we're trying to stress as a staff. Jeff's following suit, he's a hard worker, he gets it."
Yes, Samardzija gets it on and off the mound. He gets that he plays a game for a living and while he takes his job seriously, he doesn't take himself too seriously. For example, Samardzija pitched on his bobblehead day and jokingly said he felt some pressure to perform well because he didn't want to leave the ballpark that day and see hundreds of bobbleheads smashed on the sidewalks.
He generally lets things roll off his shoulders. Like when he hit Paul Konerko in the face during the CubsSox series. I talked to Jeff the next day and he genuinely felt bad about hitting Konerko and insisted it was unintentional. When I told him he was getting killed on the radio by fans who thought it was bush-league, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I figured as much. It's all part of the game."
Nothing seems to bother the guy. I keep waiting for him to drop a "party on, dudes" a la Ted. The closest I came was last week when the team's nutritionist walked through the dugout. Samardzija admitted to me he eats a lot of junk food. McDonalds, you name it.
"Candy, too?" I asked.
"Oh yeah, all of it," he replied.
"That's going to catch up to one day," I said in my best mom voice.
"It's all good," he said. "I'm not worried about it."
Party on, Jeff.
If Samardzija can keep building on what he's done through 13 starts, he's going to be more than a serviceable pitcher for the Cubs and could finally realize the potential Hendry saw in him five years ago. Even Samardzija admits it's been a long road.
"It's been a long time coming," he admits. "It's nice when you work for something and end up getting what you want."
And if Samardzija sits atop the Cubs rotation even in a dismal rebuilding year, it will be significant.
I can just hear him now in his best Ted voice, "This has been a most excellent adventure!"
And it's sure to get even better for Samardzija.