Chicago Sun-Times
with sports reporters Chris De Luca and Gordon Wittenmyer

Cubs' Samardzija ready to get it started

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PITTSBURGH - Opening Day is a return to the scene of the crime, as far as Jeff Samardzija is concerned.

The place he had perhaps his two most dominant starts last season. The place where his best season - his prove-it season - was abruptly stopped short when he reached a long-planned innings limit.

A complete-game shutdown of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sept. 8 was the end of what might yet turn into a tell-tale individual season for the Cubs in this organizational rebuilding - but it came at a time Samardzija never felt stronger and when he had inched close enough to smell the magic 200-innings mark.

"That was probably the main gripe I had with being shut down," said the power-pitching right-hander who makes his first Opening Day start Monday at PNC Park, hoping to pick up where he left off last year.

"You're that far, and you want to take it and see how far you can go with it,'' he said. "But that's for another time, I guess."

That time is now.

Samardzija, 28, takes the hopes for a strong start for his team and the expectations of a 200-inning workload into his second season as a big-league starter, this time with no innings restrictions, no kid-glove treatment - and, as far as he's concerned, no holds barred.

"You work hard in the off-season and you work hard in spring training, and this is the date you circle on your calendar," he said. "It's just a relief that it's finally here.

"I'm excited to be on regular rest all year this year, instead of getting a day here, a day there, with off days."

And maybe a little more excited about the reward for the work, and the faith of management, that the opening assignment represents.

"Everyone gets a little nervous," he said. "I'm expecting the anxiety to be a little more in the direction of excitement than anything else. ... I want to take my time understanding that the emotions and the all the energy's going to come naturally just from the atmosphere. So I don't need to get really too excited before the game - and just try to stay level-headed going into it."

As the Cubs look at the next few years, Samardzija might be the key - the homegrown power pitcher capable of being a frontline starter for an organization whose next projected impact pitcher is probably starting the season in Class A ball this year.

It's why they talked long-term extension with Samardzija in the off-season. But Samardzija's big-stage confidence and big-time athletic pedigree has him thinking of bigger things than a few years of security that comes with a first-offer hometown discount.

He won't use words like Cy Young, but this is a guy who believes he's on his way to becoming one of the top pitchers in the game. He also produced a second half last year that seemed to back him up, until management said he was done.

Whether he has any small doubts left about his ability to make 32 starts and throw 200 innings for the first time in his career, he's not showing them.

"There's no doubt in my mind," manager Dale Sveum said. "He's just too durable. He's got the body to do it. He's got the work ethic to do it. He finished strong. He only needed 30 more innings to get to 200 last year, and he was as strong as anybody in the game at that time."

But like the Washington Nationals with young Stephen Strasburg, there was no bending when it came to shutting down Samardzija at the prescribed workload level.

Or was there?

"Obviously, we would have changed that plan if we were in a pennant race," Sveum said.

That ship had long sailed by Sept. 8.

But with the annual optimism that comes with every Opening Day, and with the promise of a season for Samardzija free of restrictions, the big right-hander plans to have something to say about the kind of September the Cubs have this time around.

"When [injured Matt] Garza and those guys come back, and they're in the rotation right behind [me] and throwing in the same series as me and Edwin [Jackson], that's going to be a ton of fun," Samardzija said. "I'm excited for that. It's a long season, and we need to take care of business right now with the guys that are healthy and put is in a situation where when we get those guys back we're ready to go and really make a run through the summer."

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This page contains a single entry by Gordon Wittenmyer published on March 31, 2013 9:25 PM.

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