Slider gives Jeff Samardzija a lift

Chicago Cubs reliever Jeff Samardzija may never be the elite starter many fans hoped for when the Cubs drafted him in fifth round of the 2006 draft and lured him away from football with a lucrative contract, but he is sliding in the right direction.

Samardzija burst onto the scene in 2008 (while the Cubs were in the midst of a pennant race) with an electric fastball that touched the upper 90s, but not much else in his repertoire. In the ensuing years, there would often be rumblings that Samardzija had refined his slider in the minors, but whenever he’d return big leagues, the slider would be as inconsistent as ever.

This season has been a different story, as Samardzija’s slider has not only been great, but he’s been using it more than ever (28.9% of his pitches are sliders this season, compared to his previous career high of 17.2% in 2010).

“Nothing really changed, it’s just about going out and repeating your delivery,” Samardzija said about finally developing a consistent second pitch. “It’s going out every day and getting many opportunities in game situations to throw your slider. You can practice it as much as you want to get a feel for it, but [when] you really get a chance to use it in a game, plenty of opportunities under your belt, you start building that confidence to be able to throw it any time.”

For the past three seasons, Samardzija had bounced back and forth between starting and relieving. Finally in 2011, Samardzija has found some consistency out of the bullpen as his role has finally been defined. With 61 innings pitched this season, Samardzija has almost doubled his previous high of 34 2/3 in 2009.

“It takes the guessing game out of it,” Samardzija said. “Always trying to change your plan of what you’re gonna do out there. It takes that and throws it out the window.”

Samardzija’s fastball has also seen an increase in velocity since the beginning of the season. In the first two and a half months, Samardzija’s fastball was sitting between 93-95 mph. Since then, he’s consistently been in the 96-98 range. Samardzija’s ability to throw multiple pitches effectively -- he also has a splitter that he mixes in with his four-seamed fastball and slider -- has resulted in him posting a career high 9.00 K/9.

“I just think I’ve changed just a couple things, real small, minute things, just picking up from guys around the team and what they’ve done,” Samardzija said of the uptick in velocity. “Just a combination of things, you start feeling good and start having some confidence, you can really start letting the ball go.”

While Samardzija is far from perfect -- his 14.2% walk rate has to improve if he expects to be a dominant late inning reliever -- the fact that he’s showing more than occasional flashes of his vast potential is a great sign. Samardzija knows he still has work to do, not only with limiting his walks, but learning how to pitch effectively even when his stuff isn’t at its best.

While some fans may have grown impatient with Samardzija’s inconsistencies, he knew that all he needed was some time to grow to become the pitcher he knew he could be.

“When you’re down in Triple-A, you’ve got a lot of things you need to work on and that’s where you work on it at,” Samardzija said. “If you work on it (in the big leagues) it’s going to be tough, you’re facing great hitters. If you’re working on your slider for instance and it’s not as good as it needs to be, it’s going to get hit.”

Samardzija isn’t sure what the future holds for him and wouldn’t rule out a return to being a starter, but added that he’s just happy to pitch. Even if he never reaches the lofty expectations that came with his big contract, Samardzija looks to have a bright future coming out of the pen.