Despite Cubs’ loss to Mets, Jeff Samardzija says he’s hitting stride
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org July 7, 2012 9:32PM
Jeff Samardzija is 8-13 with a staff-best 3.91 ERA in 27 starts. He’s 3-6 with a 2.64 ERA in 12 starts since a rough June. | AP
Updated: August 9, 2012 9:48AM
NEW YORK — It wasn’t the kind of first half Jeff Samardzija pictured when the season started.
But nobody expected him to reach the All-Star break leading the Cubs in starts, innings, strikeouts and wins as a first-time, full-time starter, either.
And, he said after pitching another seven innings Saturday, ‘‘I think I’m just starting to hit my stride.’’
That’s both encouraging and a point of high alert going into the second half for a team planning to build a winning pitching staff around his powerful right arm. It’s a story line that could rival Rizzomania and Ryan Dempster’s trade watch for most compelling of the Cubs’ last three months of a loss-heavy season.
‘‘I put in all that hard work in the offseason for this exact reason,’’ said Samardzija, who got better the deeper he pitched into the 3-1 loss to the New York Mets. ‘‘I’m really looking forward to hitting the second half strong and staying in the weight room and staying with my cardio.
‘‘It’s going to be a big thing for me, proving to these guys in the second half of the season that as the season goes along, I stay strong.’’
Even bigger over a second half that should include 15 starts for Samardzija is sticking to his maintenance and rest plan. Pitching coach Chris Bosio and the front office devised it before the season to get Samardzija through a workload that already is bigger than any he has had in a big-league season.
That’s one of the reasons manager Dale Sveum slotted Samardzija at the end of his post-break rotation. It gives him 10 days off before his next start.
He’s only 401/3 innings short of his professional career high, reached five years ago.
‘‘He’s handled himself pretty well,’’ said Steve Clevenger, who has caught Samardzija in his last two strong starts after a poor June.
‘‘He’s throwing strikes. He’s got great stuff. I think he can definitely be a front-runner in our rotation. It’s just about getting innings and getting used to it.’’
If the Cubs’ brass is right about Samardzija’s ability to become that ‘‘front-runner,’’ then how quickly he gets there almost certainly will say a lot about how quickly a team that dropped back into last place can get back toward the top.
After a winless June that didn’t include a start longer than 51/3 innings and closed with a 17-1 beating against this same left-leaning Mets lineup, Samardzija’s two seven-inning starts against Atlanta and New York might be as big as any this season for him.
‘‘The confidence level is definitely [good], and he’s going into the second half with a good frame of mind,’’ Sveum said.
‘‘We knew there were going to be growing pains and things like that. And I think he went through them, and he’s understanding how to do it three times through the lineup, to get there, to settle back down after something bad happens and regroup like he did today.’’
Samardzija (6-8) didn’t have great command of his split-finger pitch in the early innings, and Ike Davis hit one for a two-run homer and 3-0 lead in the third. But he found it quickly after that and gave up only three singles the rest of the way.
Samardzija might have even finished the half with a break-even record if the Cubs could’ve done anything against Mets starter Dillon Gee, who went eight innings and escaped his only jam with one run allowed after striking out Alfonso Soriano with two men on in the sixth.