Samardzija on Past, Present, Future

KODAK, Tenn. – Jeff Samardzija grew up a fan of all Chicago sports teams. So when the Cubs took a chance and drafted the would-be certain NFL first-round pick, Samardzija had a decision to make. It turned out to be an easy one.

"I thought it was a more complicated decision than what it ended up being," said Samardzija (), an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame from 2003 through 2006. "I weighed my options and it came down to me realizing: ‘What do I want to do for the rest of my life every day?'

"After that, it was a pretty simple decision," he said. "Every day I wanted to go to the park and I wanted to go play baseball. From there it was just about getting all the things lined up to make it work out with the Cubs. It was a pretty easy decision once I really broke it down."

The Cubs selected Samardzija, a two-sport athlete in South Bend, after his junior year of college in the fifth round of the 2006 draft.

They came up with first-round money and then some with a five-year, $10 million major league contract this past January.

"I had talked with (Cubs General Manager) Jim Hendry beforehand, and they already knew that they didn't have a second-, third- or fourth-round pick," Samardzija said. "Obviously, I wasn't going to go in the first couple of rounds because nobody knew what I was going to do with football at the time.

"He had told me if I was there (in the fifth round), they were going to take me. I was hoping it worked out and I got a call and it did," Samardzija added. "It made my decision a lot easier to know I was going to be home, and to know where I would be playing my career at was really cool."

Samardzija, 22, is a native of Merrillville, Ind., and grew up pulling for all Chicago teams. He now makes his home in nearby Valparaiso.

"I grew up about 35 miles from Chicago right on Lake Michigan, so I grew up a Cubs fan, Sox fan, Bears fan, Blackhawks fan, Bulls fan," Samardzija said. "My realm was right over there. I'm a big Blackhawks fan. I've always enjoyed hockey. I'm just a Chicago fan in general; big Bears fan."

After the draft, Samardzija spent the summer of 2006 in Peoria, Ill., where he was 0-1 with a 3.27 ERA, and at Boise, Idaho (1-1, 2.37 ERA), pitching a combined 30 innings for the two farm clubs.

He went back to Notre Dame for his senior year of football in the fall of 2006 and then reported to Cubs Big League Spring Training in 2007.

"It was awesome," Samardzija recalled of his first Spring Training with the Cubs. "It's amazing what you pick up and how you carry yourself when you're around those guys. It's definitely something that you need to carry with you no matter where you get assigned to. It was a great learning experience and I look forward to it again next year."

But for this year, Samardzija was assigned to Class High A Daytona, where he was under orders to develop a changeup to go with his blazing fastball.

He initially struggled in Daytona and posted a 3-8 record with a 4.95 ERA despite showing considerable improvement in his latter starts.

He was promoted to Double-A on Aug. 2 and has been strong thus far with a 2-0 record and a 1.46 ERA.

His first win on Aug. 6 against Montgomery stopped a three-game Tennessee losing streak, and Samardzija's second win on Aug. 12 against longtime Cubs Double-A affiliate West Tennessee brought the bullpen some much-needed relief after he went six and one-third innings. In the previous four games, Tennessee starters hadn't lasted more than four innings.

Samardzija's next scheduled start is Saturday against Chattanooga.

"The one thing that I've seen from him that I did not see in Spring Training was a good changeup," said Dennis Lewallyn, the Smokies' pitching coach.

"That's one thing when he left Spring Training that he was mandated to do ... develop a changeup. Part of that came from refining his delivery a little bit. Now he's got a better delivery," Lewallyn observed.

The right-hander limited his changeups to only three in his first start for Tennessee because Montgomery has a lineup bloated with left-handed hitters. (The first seven in the order either bat left-handed or were switch hitters).

"He only threw three, and I think that was because there were seven left-handers in the lineup and his breaking ball is more conducive to get a right-hander out than a lefty," Lewallyn explained. "But the breaking ball that I've seen from him in the bullpen (sessions) is better also."

Samardzija mixed up his pitches a lot more in his second start. He struck out three, walked two and gave up two homers to left-handed batters.

He once again left to a standing ovation, especially among the Notre Dame faithful that turned out in green and gold at Smokies Park for his two appearances.

"(I) just soak it in and enjoy it and run with it," Samardzija said of the Irish fans. "It's such a great following. You've got to use it. It's unfortunate you can't get to all the fans and thank them and sign something for them, but I try. I go out and try to represent the school well and try to continue why they are fans in the first place.

Samardzija added: "They enjoy Notre Dame. They enjoy the history and the tradition. On top of that, they enjoy Notre Dame football, baseball, basketball, and how they play the game that they're playing. They do it the right way. I am just trying to continue that."

Samardzija was a high-profile football player for one of the country's most-storied programs and is used to a lot of scrutiny.

The hype has followed him from college to the pros.

"It's just been crazy, but I guess going to Notre Dame it also kind of sets you up for it," Samardzija said. "Coming in and being a recruit in football and baseball at Notre Dame, there's a lot of hype no matter who you are. There are a lot of similarities between the two (Cubs and Notre Dame). The Cubs have just as strong a following, if not bigger, as Notre Dame does.

"The way I deal with it (is) I just embrace it and enjoy it," Samardzija added. "I think there has got to be something pushing you beyond your own personal conviction. There has to be something else from the outside. Trust me, there is no worse feeling than going out and not performing well and knowing yourself you didn't perform well, and then having other people that are on your side, too, tell you that you did not perform well.

"The last thing we want to do is go out and disappoint the fans. The good times are a whole lot better than the bad times."

Winless through nearly three months to start the season, Samardzija has shown improvement down the stretch run. ( Photo)

Lewallyn has 25 years of coaching experience in the minor leagues (though he is in his first year with Tennessee), and eight years of playing time in the major leagues. He has witnessed a lot over that time and has seen top prospects come and go through farm systems.

His initial impression of Samardzija was a good one, however.

"He's just a good kid, and he would fit in anywhere," Lewallyn said. "He doesn't stand out in the clubhouse. Now, when he walks outside, everyone knows who Jeff Samardzija is. But he's one of the guys in there and I think that's outstanding. They like having him in there, and that's half the battle."

It didn't hurt that Samardzija came in with pitcher Mitch Atkins, who was also promoted from Daytona. The Tennessee clubhouse is now full of former Single-A teammates, including Tyler Colvin – the Cubs' first-round pick in 2006. Their next pick in that draft, of course, was Samardzija.

"I had known a lot of the guys before – whether from Daytona or Spring Training," Samardzija said. "It was a little bit easier, but they make the transition so easy. It was nice to come up here and it sounds like they are pretty happy to have us up here."

That's an understatement.

The "baby Smokies" have helped to keep Tennessee in the thick of the second-half division race for first place. Tennessee also has the lead in the wild card standings in the Southern League.

Lewallyn uses the word "baby" to describe where Samardzija is in his pro career.

"As far as pitching goes, he's still a baby," Lewallyn said. "He would have gone right to the NFL out of football, but in baseball, he went to A ball and you're talking usually two and half to three to four years from the big leagues.

"So from a pitching standpoint, he's still a baby," Lewallyn added. "But he's shown a lot of improvement and obviously has a lot of aptitude or he wouldn't have been the football player and baseball player that he was. ... He hasn't been able to focus just on baseball. He got by on natural ability so he's got a little bit of catching up to do."

Samardzija and Atkins are the latest in a line of young pitchers to come under Lewallyn's tutelage. As was noted, Lewallyn had spent some time with Samardzija in Spring Training, but he had not had much contact with Atkins.

"Very receptive. Both of them are all ears. Both of them came in here with pretty good deliveries. I didn't see much of Mitch, but Samardzija was just kind of a thrower," said Lewallyn.

"(Daytona Pitching coach) Rich (Bombard) did a good job with him at Daytona cleaning up his delivery and now as he gets innings, he'll get comfortable with his delivery and be able to repeat it more often."

The way Samardzija sees it, he would be foolish not to listen to the coaches.

"You've got to have faith in the people who are trying to coach you," he said. "You have to understand, I haven't been in this game too long so I still have a lot to learn. I've played the game for a long time, but playing in pro ball has only been probably 100, 120 innings, so there is still a whole lot out there to learn, especially when it comes to pitch selection and off speed pitches.

"And mechanics can always be worked on no matter what level you're at and how long you've been playing," Samardzija added. "You've got to come in with an open mind. Otherwise, you're cutting yourself off."

Samardzija displays a maturity that is fairly common among ballplayers that come to the minor leagues from college. He needs less than a semester of coursework at Notre Dame to complete his degree in business and has promised his father that he will finish school.

His experience on the football field, especially playing in front of tens of thousands of fans and millions more on television, has also helped.

"Some guys, when the Farm Director comes in town, they don't pitch well," Lewallyn said. "They get nervous. My comment is if you get nervous in front of the Farm Director, what are you going to do in front of 50,000 people and a national audience?"

Lewallyn refers to this as "mental toughness," and the farm system is where young pitchers develop it along with a repertoire of pitches to get hitters out.

Samardzija can also draw on his football career for reminders.

"I think there are a lot of comparisons in that you do have to be intense," Lewallyn said. "He was a wide receiver, and he was on offense. From my standpoint, pitching is offense. In football if you've got the ball, you're on offense. In basketball if you've got the ball, you're on offense.

"Well, for me, if I'm holding the ball in my hand, I've got to be on the offensive, and you want him to have that aggressiveness that he had to have as a wide receiver as a pitcher: ‘be aggressive, I'm coming right after you, and I'm going to get you out,'" Lewallyn added.

"You also have to be very athletic to be a wide receiver, and you have to have a good memory – plays, route running – so I think that's helped him."

Samardzija draws parallels between the two sports.

"The thing that I really got caught up in was playing offense on football. You're on the field; you're gung-ho; you're running plays; you're running around and then the defense goes on and you're sitting," Samardzija said. "It's a lot like pitching. You're up for half an inning pitching; the other half you're sitting out and thinking about the last inning and the inning to come.

"There are parallels to getting up and getting down, and getting your mind ready and assessing how the last couple of innings went and how to learn from it," Samardzija said. "There are parallels, but then again they're pretty opposite, too. Getting out and playing in front of thousands of people, it never hurts to get that kind of experience, too."

Of course, Samardzija won't just be sitting in the dugout between innings all the time. He will also have to hit for himself, and he should get his first at-bat in professional baseball against Chattanooga Saturday.

"I hit a couple of times in college," he said. "I was a center fielder in high school. I've swung before; just not against this kind of pitching so we'll see what happens. I'm sure I'll be bunting in there a few times. Unless no one's on and there are a couple of outs, I'm pretty sure I'll be bunting."

His manager, Pat Listach, has said he's curious to see how Samardzija can hit because of his overall athleticism.

Listach might give Samardzija the swing-away sign.

"I'm kind of interested to see him hit," Listach said recently. "He's a pretty good athlete so I want to see if he can hit. He's excited about hitting. We'll see him in Chattanooga. He'll get a chance to bat."

But Samardzija's ticket to Chicago will be earned on the mound.

He should get four more starts for the Smokies this season before the regular season ends on Sept. 3 at Carolina.

"In these last four starts, just some consistency," Samardzija said of his goals for the final 2-3 weeks of the season. "Obviously, the bullpen later in the season, they get pretty tired, too. As a starter, your pitch count is up as high as it's going to get and (you're) just looking to go five, six, seven innings into the game and take the pressure off them and keep your team in it to win the game.

"These past four or five starts of mine (at Daytona and Tennessee), I've been really happy with how they've been going," Samardzija added. "The ball's been staying down and the off-speed has been good. So just keep building on it and not take a step backwards. Keep trying to go forward. Go into the off-season on the right foot and really get ready for next year."

The 2007 season is winding down, so Samardzija wants to set the tone now for '08.

"I need to be consistent, not only just from start to start but inning to inning and making adjustments on the mound is a big part of it," he said.

"I think once I can start doing that and have a little more command and confidence in my off-speed, and throwing them in different situations ... I think once that comes, then who knows."

Samardzija doesn't want to set a timetable to get to Chicago, but he clearly wants to make it to the major leagues as soon as he can. At the same time, he's trying to stay in the present.

And so for now, his mind is fixated on his off-speed pitches.

"That's what I am going to use the off-season for and really hone in on; a couple of things that I really need to push over the edge," Samardzija said. "The situation I'm in going into Spring Training (is) with an open mind and (a willingness) to work hard. But that's down the road.

"We can still just concentrate on what we're going to do right now in these last starts and then the playoffs, whatever that holds. That's still to be determined. That might be another couple of starts, which would be awesome. Keep getting better and anything can happen beyond that."

He added: "Baseball is a funny sport. People come; people go. Who knows? Just get a positive head about it and just keep going up, keep improving."

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