Samardzija inching into All-Star chatter

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs’ leading candidates to represent the club in the All-Star Game continue to be Jeff Samardzija and/or Bryan LaHair, with one of them poised to have a fine story to tell.

Starlin Castro is in the conversation as well, but he's been there and done that. Samardzija and LaHair have taken the road less traveled.

On one hand there is the minor-league journeyman LaHair, who is making the most of his first real chance to be an everyday starter, even if his production has slowed of late.

Then there is Samardzija, who continues to look confident and cool in his first season as a starter after spending his four previous big league seasons as a reliever. The Notre Dame product made another case for himself Tuesday when he held down the San Diego Padres to improve to 5-3 with a 3.09 ERA.

Winning on his own bobblehead day, a promotion that was decided on in December well before he had earned a starting role, was not only a bonus, it was a must.

“You don’t want to pitch bad and go outside and see your bobblehead smashed all over the pavement,” Samardzija said. “You want to keep the game close and hopefully people go put them in their room now or something, instead of in the trash.”

Credit Shawn Camp then with not only preserving the chance at victory but saving the Wrigley Field cleanup crew from having to dispose of a lot of porcelain waste. Samardzija was pulled from the game in the eighth inning with the a runner on third base, nobody out and the Cubs clinging to a one-run lead.

Camp got out of the jam, James Russell closed out the victory with his first career save and Samardzija was able to end his own personal two-game losing streak while recording his first victory since May 7.

It’s not as if Samardzija has pitched poorly of late. He has a 2.12 ERA over his last seven starts since allowing five runs in an outing at Miami. It was that outing against the Marlins and one in spring training against the Rockies that have helped Samardzija to settle in as a starter.

In both of those outings, the right-hander went back to his old reliable approach of reaching back and throwing as hard as he could to get outs. And while that might have worked in the minor leagues and on occasion in the big leagues as a reliever, doing it as a starter wasn’t working.

He is changing speeds more often and finding out that deception can take you a lot farther than overpowering stuff alone could ever do.

“The Colorado start in spring training was what I used to do: go out and try to throw hard the whole time,” Samardzija said. “When you get a free swinging team that can put the bat on the ball you have to change it up. I just put that in the back of my mind and have caught myself a few times this year realizing that I need to slow it up a bit.”

It’s working, especially in home games. Samardzija is 3-1 at Wrigley Field this season with a 1.96 ERA. In his 10 starts overall, the Cubs are 7-3.

“I thought once we took the lead I wasn’t going to have to manage, I just thought he was going to walk right through the ninth inning with that small of a pitch count,” manager Dale Sveum said of Samardzija. “But he was getting the ball up and he was on the bases. But he did a great job.”

Samardzija admitted that running the bases in the seventh inning after working a walk had him a little winded. But delivering at the plate is something he enjoys as well and his RBI single in the fifth inning gave the Cubs the lead for good.

“That’s fun man,” said Samardzija, who has three hits and two RBIs this season. “That’s what I enjoy doing. As a pitcher it’s great because you’re not expected to do anything. You’re expected to get out so anything you do beyond that is icing.”

The real icing, though, could come in early July if his success on the mound continues. Make that July 10 to be exact when the All-Star Game takes place in Kansas City.