Where Have You Gone, Jeff Samardzija?

By Chris Rewers on Saturday, August 28, 2010

How do you know that you're in a room with somebody who went to Notre Dame?

He'll tell you.

Fair or not, Notre Dame alumni aren't known for their humility.

But Notre Dame alumnus Jeff Samardzija was forced to swallow his pride in spring training when he lost a competition for a spot in the Cubs starting rotation. He then was knocked down another peg in April when he was demoted to Triple A Iowa after compiling an 0-1 record and an 18.90 ERA in four relief appearances.

It was a tough pill to swallow for a player who chose baseball over an NFL career and then made a meteoric rise through the Cubs farm system. After being drafted by the Cubs in 2006, Samardzija reached the major leagues on July 25, 2008 and was an important part of the bullpen during the stretch drive of the '08 season. The Shark posted a 2.28 ERA in 26 appearances for the NL Central champions.

Samardzija took a giant step backwards last season and was shuttled back and forth between Chicago and Des Moines, He went 1-3 with a 7.53 ERA in 20 appearances during three different stint with the Cubs in 2009.

But after all the disappointments of the last two years, Samardzija regrouped and has quietly but together an impressive season at Des Moines, first as a reliever and most recently as a starter. The 25-year-old right-hander is 11-2 with a 3.23 ERA in 33 games, including 13 starts.

When Samardzija was sent to the minors in April, manager Lou Piniella lamented the right-hander's lack of a second pitch.

"You can't throw fastball after fastball at the major league level and expect to get people out," Piniella said.

Samardzija was receptive to Lou's criticism and has developed an effective cutter to compliment his upper-90s fastball.

"He's made a great deal of progress," Iowa manager Ryne Sandberg told the Daily Herald's Bruce Miles. "He's really come along with his command and his pitching. He's done a real good job working on mechanics here. I think he's headed back to the major leagues with the way he's developed here this year.

"His command is better. He's pitching ahead in the count, and he has a better idea what he's doing with his pitches. His breaking pitches have gotten better, but his fastball has gotten better with location and throwing strikes. The other thing I like about him is he's very, very competitive, and he's like a bulldog out there."

Samardzija has watched a seemingly endless parade of Iowa pitchers get called to the majors ahead of him this season - with left-hander Scott Maine being the latest - but he told Miles that he requested the opportunity to stay put once he was sent down.

"I talked to Jim (Hendry), and I talked to everybody," Samardzija told Miles. "We didn't want to do what we did last year. We didn't want to go up and down. We didn't want it to be a roller-coaster ride. Are we paying for it a little now? Absolutely.

"I didn't have plans of just pitching for the Cubs for a year or two years. For me, this is a long-term decision, and there's no other place that I want to be - ever - to tell you the truth. You take your licks now, and you learn from them."

Samardzija should return to the big leagues in September after Iowa completes postseason play, and if he continues to pitch like he has in recent months, should be part of the Cubs starting rotation in 2011.

"In this sport, you've got to persevere, and you've got to stick through the hard times," Samardzija said. "When you look at the whole picture, you're a better player for it."

Kudos to the Cubs for showing patience with Samardzija and for previously sticking with Sean Marshall while he struggled in previous seasons before putting it all together this season.

A detour to the minors has happened to the best of them.

Greg Maddux went back to the minors while suffering through a brutal 6-14 campaign with the Cubs in 1987.

In 2000, after a successful rookie season in 1999, Roy Halladay was banished to the minors by the Toronto Blue Jays. At the time of his demotion, Halladay was 4-7 with a 10.64 ERA. He returned to the majors late in the 2001 season and became one of the decade's most dominant pitchers.

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