Jeff Samardzija gave up one hit in three scoreless innings Wednesday against the Royals. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times file photo
Updated: April 10, 2012 11:29AM
SURPRISE, Ariz. — Jeff Samardzija showed up in Mesa five years ago with long hair, a $10 million contract and a name his manager had no chance of pronouncing.
“I think we’ll just call him ‘Jeff ND,’ ” Lou Piniella said.
And then he told Samardzija to get a haircut.
Those days are long gone — almost as long as the hair is again today.
These days, the only problem his new manager has with his name is where he might want to slot it in his starting rotation.
One of a half-dozen pitchers in camp supposedly in the mix for the last two spots in the rotation, manager Dale Sveum suggested Wednesday that the pitcher getting the most buzz in camp could put himself past presumptive No. 3 starter Paul Maholm.
“You never know what’s going to happen,’’ Sveum said. “We’ll just see how that pans out.’’
And that was before Samardzija looked so dominant in his first two innings against the Kansas City Royals that he was sent out for an unscheduled third in his first start of the spring. He blanked the Royals on one hit and looked especially agile fielding his position.
More than once, Sveum has said Samardzija has looked on a ‘‘mission’’ this spring.
“A hundred percent correct,’’ Samardzija said. “I hold a lot of stuff inside. I don’t say too much stuff. But I have a big chip on my shoulder. Especially the older I get and slowly see my football skills diminishing, I’ve got to understand that I need to start pitching good.’’
He dropped the football quip with a smile, but the chip is serious. As serious as the Notre Dame part of his identity that Piniella saw is gone.
The transformation started in earnest last year when Samardzija spent the season in the Cubs’ bullpen, the first time in his career he spent a full season at one level and the first time since ’06 rookie ball that he was left in one role.
“With all due respect, it might not have been the best route [for development],’’ he said of the bouncing back and forth since his original call-up in 2008 — two managers, two pitching coaches and countless career stutter-steps ago.
“But it was a necessary route at the time. Lou and those guys that were here — and Jim [Hendry] —you’ve got to win just to keep your job, and in ’08 and ’09, we were trying to win. And if they thought that me being in the bullpen in the big leagues was the best way to win, then that’s how it’s going to go.
“People tend to forget we’re just pawns here. We’re just the guys on the chessboard. Everybody else is making the moves, so I don’t get caught up in that. … I got to come up and pitch as a young guy and maybe wasn’t ready to do it against a lot of great hitters.’’
Sveum and new pitching coach Chris Bosio bring fresh eyes and no growing-pain memories of Samardzija. All they see is a hard-throwing, determined, athletic major-league pitcher with the stuff and command that might even earn him a spot in the first series of the season, behind Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza (in some order).
“The biggest thing this regime has done is come in and instilled confidence in me, which has been huge,’’ he said, “because I’ve battled these last few years with just trying to prove that I’m where I’m supposed to be.’’