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Jeff Samardzija’s improvement puts him in line for a 2012 rotation spot

Jeff SamardzijCubs pitches eighth inning Wrigley Field Thursday August 11 2011 Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Jeff Samardzija of the Cubs pitches in the eighth inning at Wrigley Field Thursday, August 11, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 30, 2011 12:16AM

NEW YORK — No chance for the Cubs to compete again by next year?

Not enough quality starting pitching in-house and not enough on the winter market to make up that difference?

Maybe. But the Cubs believe they might have a secret weapon lurking in the bullpen shadows to bolster their biggest problem area.

Jeff Samardzija.

The right-hander has followed a good first half with a much-improved second half that has prompted internal discussions about his potential ability to start.

Even on a Sunday night in which he allowed an inherited, tying run to score in the eighth on his two-out throwing error, he came back to pitch out of a jam in the ninth to send the game to extra innings. The Cubs went on to win 10-6 in 11 innings.

The fact that Samardzija got the call in the eighth in a one-run game with one out and two men on speaks volumes about how far he has come.

“He’s gotten really good the second half commanding his pitches, throwing a second pitch for a strike, with less pitches per inning, so his value is going up,’’ pitching coach Mark Riggins said, ‘‘and it makes you think a little bit more for next year, could he throw six or seven innings and keep the pitch count [down]?

“It’s something that has to be talked about in the winter time, but there is a possibility, yes.’’

Obviously, dire need prompts a deeper look within for possible starters. What depth the Cubs might have thought they had a few months ago has all but dried up.

Carlos Zambrano is on the launch pad this winter, Casey Coleman has taken a step back this year and Andrew Cashner’s five-month shoulder injury casts doubt over his prospects.

“We’ll evaluate where we’re at this winter, and who the [front office] might go get,’’ Riggins said. ‘‘But you’ve got to look from within first. And of the guys that we have who could possibly do that, he’s one you’ve got to think about.’’

Keys to Samardzija’s significant rise into a reliable two-inning reliever this season include embracing his bullpen role and stability in that position after three years of shuttling between roles with the Cubs and in the minors.

Of course, he’s never made secret his desire to become a starter since giving up football in 2006 to sign a $10 million deal with the Cubs.

‘‘I’ve probably approached it the wrong way over the past couple years in wanting to be a starter and being open about it,’’ he said, ‘‘but that’s been in my heart since I signed to come play baseball. What the future holds I don’t know. But I feel I have a lot to offer and even more to offer to the starting rotation.

‘‘I realized this year that I needed to prove that. I needed to prove to the coaching staff and this team that I deserve and earned a bigger role on this team.’’

He still has more than two weeks left to finish what he started.

But if his learning curve continues on its current arc, he could be an important part of a rotation next year that seems to have only three other certain candidates: Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells.

“He’s really become a guy that [manager Mike Quade] can rely on,’’ Riggins said. ‘‘And you’ve got to pat him on the back for it, because he’s really worked hard.’’

Samardzija followed a successful first half [3.48 ERA] with an ERA of 2.53 since the All-Star break that has included cutting his walks rate from 5.6 per nine innings to 3.9.

He has become especially good at spotting a power fastball to set up at-bats, and with two more effective pitches refined in his relief role, he already has the repertoire to start.

“It would be very gratifying as a baseball player as a whole [to get a chance to start], because being one of those five guys is a very big, very important part of everything,’’ he said. “But I understood what they wanted to do with me this year .  .  . and it’s meant a lot to me to know my role and grow as a pitcher.

“I still feel like the ceiling’s still up there. I’ve got a lot left to go, and that’s exciting or me personally.’’

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