Samardzija puts Cubs in good hands

Gordon Edes
Yahoo! Sports

CHICAGO – So, if he'd had his Cubs lockermate on the receiving end of his passes back in college, would Mark DeRosa have been the one forced to choose between a career in the NFL and playing baseball?

DeRosa, the starting quarterback for three seasons for the mighty Penn Quakers, laughed at the notion. Would it have been nice to have Jeff Samardzija, an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame, on his side? Of course. Would it have made a difference?

"There’s no room in the NFL for 6-foot-1, 200-pound guys with no mobility," said DeRosa, who has never been more valuable in 11 years in the big leagues than in his current incarnation as a one-man moveable feast for Cubs manager Lou Piniella, having logged time at five positions this season. "Those days are over."

Jeff Samardzija is 6-foot-5, fast and mobile. But while there surely would have been a place for him in the NFL, those days are over, too – although he makes no promises that he and DeRosa won't sneak away occasionally for a game of catch with a ball that isn't round.

"I think football is a little like a 'No Smoking' sign in this clubhouse," said Samardzija, who was called up by the Cubs three weeks ago to join their bullpen, just 18 months after signing with the team. "I don't think I'm allowed to be too close to football."

Cubs general manager Jim Hendry is not surprised that Samardzija, who set Notre Dame records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches during a career that ended in 2006, willingly gave up football. Hendry offered him a powerful incentive to do so, a five-year, $10 million contract that could be worth as much as $16.5 million if the team exercises options for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Hendry, who used a fifth-round draft pick to select Samardzija when other clubs feared football would prove too alluring, had some insider information. Notre Dame's baseball coach is Paul Mainieri, who had been Hendry's assistant when he was coaching high school in Miami (Columbus High). The two sat together at Notre Dame and watched Samardzija and the Irish nearly pull off one of the school's biggest football upsets in the epic game against USC in 2005. "Mainieri is a brother to me," Hendry said.

Mainieri told Hendry that Samardzija loved baseball as much as he did football. "He also told me this," Hendry said. "He told me that he had the biggest (guts) of anyone he'd ever coached. It's not like he threw 95 in one game and we said, 'Hey, let's give him a big-league deal.' "

Samardzija originally agreed to a conditional deal with the Cubs, one that allowed him to play football his senior year at Notre Dame.

"It never really played with my head from the day I chose not to play," Samardzija said. "I'm a professional. If I'm going out there worrying about something like that, then I'm not doing my job here. Once I made my decision – wipe my hands clean, clean slate – that was that."

But no one expected the native of Valparaiso, Ind., to arrive this quickly – at age 23, in just his third professional season, in the middle of a pennant race. His readiness took on added urgency with the ongoing health issues of Cubs closer Kerry Wood, who was shut down for almost a month with a blister on his right index finger, then developed back spasms after coming off the disabled list.

Samardzija struck out Florida's Alfredo Amezaga for his first big-league out on July 25. He was stuck with a blown save when he subsequently gave up a game-tying double to Jorge Cantu, then set down the next four batters he faced.

Two days later, he had his first save, against the Marlins, and Friday night, Piniella used him in the 9th and 10th innings of a tie game against the Cardinals. In Sunday night's 6-2 win over the Cardinals, when Ryan Dempster was lifted with a 6-1 lead in the seventh, Samardzija entered and gave up an RBI double to Albert Pujols, but quelled any further uprising by whiffing Ryan Ludwick.

"He's played on a national arena before, you know," said Piniella, who claims to have once been a Notre Dame fan before switching allegiance to the University of Florida. "We brought him along a lot quicker than we would have other kids."

Before the game, Hendry stood behind the batting cage and gestured to the upper decks filling with fans. "He loves this," he said.

And it loves him back. Samardzija lives close enough to Wrigley that he can walk to the park. "It's a long walk," he said. "But what else am I doing? I’ve got nobody else to entertain except myself.

"Chicago is a big Notre Dame town, so it's kind of double duty, playing for the Cubs, playing for Notre Dame. A lot of people say, 'Hey, what's going on.' Nobody's been rude. It’s been a lot of fun. Winning games helps."

No team has won more games at home than the Cubs, who Sunday night ran their record to a major-league best 45-17 at home. The last time the Cubs won 45 at home was 2004, and they still have 19 games left in the Friendly Confines.

"I don’t know what we've been doing differently," Hendry said. "We've been playing much better outfield defense, and this is a hard place to play the outfield. (Kosuke) Fukudome has made a big difference in right, and both guys in center (Jim Edmonds and Reed Johnson) have made a difference."

Edmonds took away a potential two-run single from losing pitcher Chris Carpenter with a diving catch in the fourth, when the Cubs were clinging to a 1-0 lead, and Fukudome made a sprawling catch in the ninth.

"We don’t have any magic formula," Hendry said. "This place has been going bonkers, but it's always going bonkers when you're going good."

The team has hit much better at home than on the road – the Cubs are averaging just over six runs a game and a .301 average at Wrigley, 4.52 runs and a .259 average away from home – but it goes deeper, according to Dempster, who improved to 11-2 at home.

"It’s been awesome here from Day One," he said. "It’s a unique place to play, but it's never felt like this."

Dempster, who has been with the Cubs since 2004, said it started in spring training, when many players, still with a sour taste from being bounced in the first round of the playoffs last fall, showed up in better shape. He also noticed that the booing at home tapered off from a fandom bitterly disappointed by the near-misses of recent years.

And now Samardzija finds himself a part of it. Wood pitched a clean inning Sunday night, and Carlos Marmol, who has now thrown 11 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, is the logical choice to close if Wood breaks down again. But Piniella isn't afraid to turn to Samardzija.

"I don’t think age has anything to do with it," Piniella said. "I think it's about makeup, confidence, stuff. (Jonathan) Papelbon is a perfect example. He was a starter, they put him in that role, and he took off."

Hendry said the club is leaning toward eventually returning Samardzija to a starting role, but admitted it could go either way. Samardzija said he would prefer to start, but has enjoyed the adrenaline rush of closing, which is more comparable to his football experience.

And he, for one, is not surprised to have arrived this quickly.

"I kept my head straight, I had a plan of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be," he said. "I didn't choose baseball to play in the minor leagues. There's more riding on this, you know. There are consequences to not doing well. But I love having that on my shoulders. It's a lot of fun."

DeRosa enjoys having someone to talk football with, but in Samardzija, he sees another important piece in the Cubs' quest to go to the World Series.

"I feel like he's been here longer than just a month," DeRosa said. "He's so used to being on the big stage, playing in front of 100,000 people. He's a guy who's had success his whole life. It's one of those things where he knows he's good, but expresses it in a very subdued way. He's not arrogant or cocky.

"He just really trusts himself."

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