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Cubs-Braves Preview

AP - Sports

Following Jeff Samardzija's latest strong performance that didn't result in a victory, manager Rick Renteria, pitching coach Chris Bosio and even the Chicago Cubs' front office had to answer some difficult questions.

Now all eyes figure to be on how Samardzija responds after throwing the most pitches of his seven-year career.

The right-hander will try to continue his outstanding start Saturday night when he faces the offensively challenged Atlanta Braves.

Although he's owns a misleading 0-3 record for last-place Chicago (12-22), Samardzija ranks second in the majors with a 1.62 ERA while receiving among the worst run support in baseball at 2.16 per game.

The Cubs' ace held the Chicago White Sox to an unearned run and three hits with seven strikeouts over nine innings in Monday's 3-1, 12-inning home loss. He finished with 126 pitches, leading some to question whether he should have been out there in the ninth inning on a cool night.

Renteria and Bosio explained that they wanted to keep him in the game in hopes of getting him his first win. General manager Jed Hoyer told the team's official website Thursday the subject of pitch counts regarding Samardzija is a "non-story" and not worth discussing further.

"I talk to Rick every day about pitcher usage, bullpen usage, starter usage," Hoyer said. "Our conversation the day after that outing was really not that much different. I think all three of us (including president of baseball operations Theo Epstein) said individually when asked about 126 pitches, he said, 'Am I going to do it every time out? No.'"

Samardzija went 2-1 with a 2.86 ERA in four 2013 starts that followed outings in which he threw at least 115 pitches, though each of those games took place after June 1.

He appears to have a favorable matchup versus Atlanta (19-15), which has totaled 20 runs while batting .209 in its last 11 games.

Samardzija surrendered two runs over 14 innings to win his first two career starts against the Braves in 2012 before striking out a career-high 13 but giving up four runs over 5 2-3 innings in a 5-1 loss in Atlanta last April.

Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Chris Johnson, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla are a combined 6 for 50 (.120) with 24 strikeouts lifetime when facing Samardzija.

The Braves managed just enough runs Friday to win for the second time in three contests following a seven-game losing streak. Freeman led the way with three hits, including a 10th-inning, walkoff single in a 3-2 victory to open the three-game set.

''I think Freddie is the best hitter in the National League,'' said Johnson, who also had three hits.

Atlanta has provided at least four runs of support in four of Ervin Santana's five starts. The right-hander is expected to return to the mound after having his last turn skipped to heal a bruised thumb.

Since allowing two runs over 21 innings in his first three outings, Santana (3-0, 2.41) has allowed seven runs over 12 2-3 innings in his last two. He gave up three runs with a season-low five strikeouts over six innings before the bullpen blew his one-run lead in a 5-4 loss at Miami on May 1.

Santana will try to keep Mike Olt from leaving the yard for a fourth straight game. The third baseman has gone 4 for 10 with three home runs and six RBIs in his last three.

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