PITTSBURGH – For two days, Jeff Samardzija did his best to keep his emotions in check, fearing that if too much excitement carried over to Monday’s Opening Day start, there could be trouble.
He spent Easter Sunday relaxing and sat in the Cubs’ clubhouse Monday morning with music blaring through earbuds as he reviewed video clips of his last start against the Pirates on an iPad as teammates sat next to him on a leather couch leisurely flipping through newspapers.
If there was any concerns over making his debut as the Cubs’ ace, they quickly disappeared – even after a shaky first inning when he walked the first batter he faced and done in by a Brent Lillibridge error.
Heck, even the weather didn’t faze Samardzija, who played high school baseball at Valparaiso High School before transitioning over to football at Notre Dame.
“I remember being in high school and pitching in the snow and stuff,” he said after the Cubs’ 3-1 win over the Pirates. “It wasn’t that bad. The snow cleared up and the sun came out. It was a beautiful day to play baseball.”
After emerging from the first inning unscathed, Samardzija settled in, pitching what manager Dale Sveum considered the best he has thrown as a starter. The final numbers backed Sveum’s evaluation: 8 innings pitched, no runs, two hits, one walk and nine strikeouts.
Certainly, Anthony Rizzo’s two-run home run provided Samardzija some room for error. But clearly on Monday, he didn’t need it, especially from a couple of solid defensive plays from second baseman Lillibridge and shortstop Starlin Castro.
“I just had to trust my stuff,” he said. “I thought it was probably one of the best pitched games I’ve thrown. I didn’t have the best stuff that I’ve had, but I thought I worked both sides of the plate up and down and really attacked their hitters with our game plan.
“It was just nice to have that confidence.”
Samardzija was effective with a two-seam fastball and gained more control of his off-speed pitches as the day progressed. His best three innings may have come during the third, fourth and fifth innings when Samardzija retired nine straight batters and struck out five. Samardzija finished the day with 110 pitches before handing the ball to the Cubs bullpen to finish the job.
Sveum said he never considered sending Samardzija back in to attempt a complete game, saying he pitched “a heck of a game” and that there was no reason to send him back in after striking out two of the three Pittsburgh hitters he faced in the eighth.
Samardzija, who pitched a complete game at PNC Park in his final start last year, said closer Carlos Marmol’s ninth-inning struggles didn’t concern him, referring to the Cubs’ bullpen as “strong”, saying he’s got “tons of confidence” in the relievers.
After Monday’s outing, the confidence level around Samardzija skyrocketed. After finishing 9-13 last season in his first year as a starter, Samardzija is ready to prove he’s ready to take the next step.
Monday was a good start.
“Samardzija pitched his butt off,” Rizzo said. “That’s just him being him. He’s a horse and whenever he pitches, that’s what we can expect from him.”