Samardzija just a big-game pitcher no more

"It's a positive thing for me," Jeff Samardzija said of battling through the tough two first innings. Brian Kersey/Getty Images

CHICAGO – Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija admits he heard the criticism that he was only a big-game pitcher. In fact, his former manager told him so.

“I remember Dale [Sveum] getting on me because he came out and told me sometimes in the big games he shows up and other times he’s not there,” Samardzija recalled after the Cubs lost to the Cincinnati Reds 6-1 on Monday. “That got under my skin. Since then I’ve always tried not to be that guy. I’m working on it.”

The irony of Samardzija’s situation is that soon enough he should be pitching in big games every fifth day, and possibly into October -- just not for the Cubs. Scouts in attendance -- at this rate it would be easier to list the teams not watching the right-hander -- saw another gutsy performance Monday. Samardzija wasn’t at his best, yet left after six innings having allowed just one run on four hits.

“Two years ago, this [first] inning would have gone a lot different than what it did,” Samardzija said. “To get out of the first inning with one run and to get out of the second inning, that says a lot. It’s a positive thing for me.”

Samardzija was in trouble in both innings, hard-hit balls flying all over the place. That guy on the phone in the stands might have been a scout from the Washington Nationals or the Atlanta Braves or a few other teams telling their bosses that Samardzija’s June wasn’t a fluke. His season was starting to go backward. But this version of Samardzija stopped the bleeding right there and kept his team in the game.

“I felt like I was fighting myself and just hanging in there,” Samardzija said of last season. “This year I really feel like every start has been the same. Consistent.”

And even though June has a much higher ERA (5.73) than April or May, Samardzija has indeed been mostly consistent throughout his starts. Is it enough for a team to unload their top prospects in a deal? Several scouts recently indicated that Jason Hammel might be better for a trade, because the Cubs can’t ask as much for him since he’s a pending free agent, and he’s pitching nearly as well. Samardzija is property of his next team for this season and next, which begs a higher asking price. Then again, they’ll get Samardzija itching to pitch in a pennant race.

“I love to pitch in big games. I love to pitch in games where I can’t sleep the night before,” Samardzija said. “Those days when you’re up until 3, 4 in the morning and you have a day game the next day. Those games are fun.”

And the biggest reason to get Samardzija is he doesn’t miss starts. He’s a workhorse who’s tried to go deeper into games this year.

“He went deep counts the first couple of innings,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “He was still hitting 96 [mph at the end]. Was throwing 94 the whole time.”

And competing. Samardzija loves to do that as well. Some may compete as much, but few surpass him. Channeling former Cub Carlos Zambrano, Samardzija broke a bat over his knee after he failed to get down a sacrifice bunt Monday.

“I learned that probably from my father back in the day,” Samardzija smirked.

He’ll get plenty of chances to pitch in big games soon enough. The only question is where. And how much will the Cubs get for him? It should still be a lot.