Samardzija Seeks the Right Mix

KODAK, Tenn. – The Cubs knew Jeff Samardzija was a raw pitcher with minimal college experience who could throw some heat. They knew he would need some seasoning in the minors to develop a repertoire and learn to change speeds. Now they're finding out that he is a team-oriented player willing to reach out to others.

Samardzija, in only his second full year of pro baseball, was recently chased in three innings after giving up six walks in a late April game for Double-A Tennessee, which included putting the first batter he faced on base with four straight pitches.

The right-hander had a hint that the outing might not go well because he was under too much control in the bullpen before the game.

"I enjoy having a bad bullpen session before the game," Samardzija said. "It usually gets me centered in. Usually when it's a bad bullpen session, the arm is feeling real good and the ball is kind of going everywhere. I don't like to use all my bullets in the pre-game warmups. Walking the leadoff guy is not what I like to do."

His pitching coach at Tennessee, Dennis Lewallyn, described Samardzija as an "infant" when it comes to baseball. He signed a five-year, $10 million contract with the Cubs in January 2007 and began last season at Class-A Daytona. He finished the season in Tennessee, and has opened the 2008 campaign with the Smokies.

Samardzija is 3-2 with a 3.44 ERA after starting the season 2-0 with an 0.75 ERA. He most recently got a win May 5 at Chattanooga, a Reds' minor league club. He said his initial success in April was the result of mixing up speeds and finding the strike zone.

"It has a lot to do with my success early in the season," Samardzija said. "Definitely a big part of my off-season was throwing my off speed pitches just to where I could have confidence in them. I'll throw them whenever, wherever, so I'm happy with them."

Lewallyn preaches patience when it comes to the young pitcher – for not only Samardzija, but the fans and the organization as well. Samardzija was an All-American receiver at Notre Dame that also played baseball for the Fighting Irish.

"He needs to pitch at one place (for a while), and he's improved quite a bit already," Lewallyn said. "He needs experience. He pitched very little in college. He went to Notre Dame because of the opportunity to play football and baseball, and football came first obviously.

"He was telling me in the spring time (that) he still had his football commitments," Lewallyn added. "Once they were through with spring practice, then he could go to baseball games. He said a lot of time he wouldn't even get there until the fifth or sixth inning of the game. So he didn't get to throw bullpen; he didn't get to do all the other practice part of it. As far as pitching goes, he's still kind of an infant."

Samardzija is also developing a club reputation as one of the good guys in baseball. Lewallyn is a college football fan and an avid Alabama Crimson Tide fan. Samardzija and Mike Shula, a former player and head coach at Alabama, share an agent, and the pitcher made arrangements for Shula to come to a game during the Smokies' recent road swing through Jacksonville so that Lewallyn could meet him. (Shula is now the quarterbacks coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars.)

But Lewallyn had a rare game off to attend the nearby wedding of his son and missed Shula's visit.

"I'm a big college football fan. I'm a big Alabama football fan. I talk to him about football and what it was like at Notre Dame," Lewallyn said.

Lewallyn also sought Samardzija for a chat after the organization decided to convert catcher Jake Muyco into a pitcher. Muyco started the season in Tennessee but then was sent to Extended Spring Training in Arizona to begin the process of learning to pitch.

Needless to say, Muyco had plenty of catcher's equipment but not a pitcher's glove, especially one already broken in.

"I asked Jeff, ‘Those four gloves that you have on top of your locker, are you attached to all four?' " Lewallyn recalled. "He said, ‘I only have three.' I said, ‘OK, never mind.' I think he thought I wanted one. He said, ‘What do you want?' I said, ‘I was going to see if you could give Muyco one.' He said, ‘I already have.'

"Jeff did it on his own. He thought about it. (Smokies reliever) Rocky Roquet gave him one, too. That's the kind of guys we have in the clubhouse."

Samardzija could sympathize with a young player – Muyco is also 23 – trying to learn a challenging position at the professional level.

"Every time I go out, I'm excited to go out and pitch and work on new things," Samardzija said. "I'm 23, but I only have about a year of baseball under my belt. I played in college, but not nearly the time that all these other guys put in. It's a learning process for me, but I am trying to make it as quick as possible. I'm happy with where I'm at right now and every time we go out, we're going to keep improving."

Lewallyn said a key component of Samardzija's development is learning to change speeds effectively to go along with his fastball, which is regularly touching 93 and 94 mph to open the season.

"First and foremost, he's got to command a fastball to pitch in the big leagues," Lewallyn said. "He knows that. But in the process – he was basically a one-pitch pitcher when he was signed; he was a fastball pitcher – he's worked very hard on his slider, and it's getting better. It's just a tick below an average major league slider now.

"He's got a very good straight changeup, and he also told me at the end of the year, ‘I did throw a few split-finger fastballs in college.' So he showed it to me, and it's a good pitch, so I mentioned it to our front office people at the Winter Meetings and they said, ‘OK, well let's start letting him incorporate some of them into the games.' He throws probably six to eight to maybe 10 in a ballgame, but it's a strikeout pitch for him. You don't want to get to where he throws too many of those and gets away from his fastball. It's a pitch that is definitely going to be a put-away pitch for him."

Samardzija is comfortable with his fastball for now and is easing into throwing it harder.

"It's coming," he said. "It's felt better every time out dating back to Spring Training. Pitch count is getting up so the velocity will come even more. I am happy with where it's out."

Smokies Park, like most ballparks, has a radar gun at the stadium that flashes a readout of each pitch. But it is mounted on a support pole on the concourse well behind home plate and is 3-6 mph lower than the actual pitch speed.

The staff uses a different gun to get an accurate reading for the pitchers. The readout flashes on a board mounted on the outfield wall so the pitchers don't see those numbers.

Lewallyn wants them focused on the plate and, if necessary, the runners on base.

"It's something he's already got a lot better at," Lewallyn said of Samardzija. "One thing Lou Piniella stresses and Larry Rothschild is that they want the pitchers to be quick to the plate so that the catcher has a chance to throw a runner out and pay attention to the runner. One thing I emphasize is, we have to see the runner, recognize the lead he has and make sure we get him stopped before we start our delivery. Jeff has gotten a lot better at it, but he still daydreams like all of them do and forgets. He's quick to the plate, but he forgets to hold the runners. Again, that's part of the learning curve."

Samardzija can pick up other lessons from Lewallyn, who pitched eight years in the major leagues and doesn't overload the pitchers with too much information.

" ‘Lew' is real good with knowing about being there," Samardzija said. "He knows what goes on day in and day out with being a pitcher. Him being a taller guy kind of helps me out, too. It's easy to work with him. He sees little things and helps out."

Samardzija is 6-foot-5, Lewallyn 6-foot-4. Taller pitchers have different issues than shorter ones, Lewallyn said.

"Mechanics are mechanics, but being a tall pitcher there are certain things you do need to do," Lewallyn said. "A shorter guy, he can get out ahead of himself a little bit, and the mistake is not as exaggerated. The guy at 6'5, if he misses his release point the mistake at home plate may be a foot whereas if you're 6 feet tall, the mistake may be six inches. That's why it's important for a taller person to stay back a little longer; make sure your arm comes through."

Samardzija already knows that baseball is a humbling game. A good outing one night can be followed by a miserable one in the next start.

"You can go out and be six inches off here or there and walk a bunch of guys and before you know it, that's it," Samardzija said. "Anytime you think you've got it figured out, you've always got to continue working on stuff and you're always fixing and polishing your game."

Samardzija's off-the-field activities – golf and fishing – are also pursuits that require patience and precision. Kodak is located in a rather rural part of East Tennessee, but the area has plenty of fishing holes and golf courses.

"I like to golf and fish in my free time," Samardzija said. "There are some great little ponds and lakes around the area. It's relaxing. It kind of gets you up and moving in the morning. You've got to get up pretty early to catch them.

"I just like to keep my edge, no matter what it is," he added. "I feel like when you go golfing, even though it's for fun and leisure, you're also out there trying to get better at the sport. It gets you moving instead of sitting on the couch all day. I enjoy it. I'm not very good at it, but we're working on that, too."

There is one aspect of sports that Samardzija has already prepared for, and that's being in the limelight and playing in front of large crowds.

As a Notre Dame football player, he became used to media coverage, fan expectations and pressure. Wherever he pitches, fans turn out in green in support.

Some also show up to heckle him.

"Absolutely," Samardzija said. "You love Notre Dame or you hate Notre Dame. It's all fun. I enjoy a heckler or two. It keeps everything exciting. You can't have everybody patting you on the back all the time or else you might get kind of soft. It keeps the game interesting. People are watching the game and there are fans in the crowd and there's interaction going on. You've got to be able to deal with all of it and enjoy it at the same time."

Samardzija learned to enjoy some down time last winter, a luxury he had never had as he went from college football to college baseball and then into the Cubs organization.

"Pretty nice actually," he said of the down time. "It was the first time I actually had one so it was a little new territory. I took about a month off to kind of let the arm relax after the season and then I started working out in November and then really kicked it into high gear in early December and carried that through the Cubs Convention and the Cubs Caravan. It was a nice off-season. I used it to its fullest. You get a little antsy, especially when you're watching TV (the baseball playoffs), and our season (the Smokies) was over. You need the rest and you need your body to recover."

Samardzija doesn't always hit when he pitches for the Smokies because the Southern League uses a designated hitter if the opponent is an affiliate of the American League.

But seven of the 10 SL clubs, including the Cubs, are National League affiliates, so Samardzija will get some plate appearances this summer. He has had 10 at-bats in four games and got his first hit, a line-drive double to right field, on May 5 against Chattanooga. He had two hits in seven at-bats for the Smokies last summer.

"I like having somewhat of a say at the plate," he said. "I am not a big fan of the DH. I think you're playing in the field, you might as well hit, too. I think it's exciting. It makes the game interesting. I enjoy hitting."

But Samardzija knows that it's on the mound that he will make his mark in the Cubs organization. His goals this summer are to get comfortable with all his pitches and consistent with his mechanics.

"Just build more confidence in all my pitches, and that comes with game experience," Samardzija said. "The more times I get out there and the more times I throw them, the more times I can take a situation and adjust from it. That's all I can ask for. I just want to get out there and throw more and get games under my belt. Everything is coming."

He can't help but look ahead and wonder when the calendar will flip to his debut in Chicago.

"I think you've got to have your eyes set on something you want to do and why I am here," Samardzija said. "I am not here to pitch in Double-A my whole career. I am here to get better. I am not nearly where I want to be or where I will be down the road. But I know I can be pretty good."

Lewallyn said the young pitcher would benefit from multiple innings in the minor leagues. He knows the parent club has a lot of money invested in Samardzija, but he hopes the game plan remains one of patience. Of course, Lewallyn also knows that circumstances can change in baseball.

"The big league club is playing very well, and the pitching is doing a good job," Lewallyn said. "Everything could change tomorrow, but if everybody stays healthy there would be no reason to rush him. If he's ready, then you take him.

"He's a very mature individual and it depends on how the rest of the season goes. He knows he needs a little more seasoning. He's working hard. He takes nothing for granted."

Samardzija wants his thoughts of being promoted to serve only as motivation and not a distraction.

"I've just got to keep working at it, keep working hard and keep throwing my off-speed stuff," he said. "What happens happens. It's not my call. As long as I am working hard and showing improvement out there, then we'll see what happens."


Northsiders Report Top Stories