Updated: June 8, 2014 6:44AM
How many pitches are too many for Jeff Samardzija?
So far the Cubs are fortunate that they haven’t found out.
And while it’s impossible to know something like that until a team’s medical staff comes into play, manager Rick Renteria admits he walked a fine line when he extended Samardzija to a career-high 126 pitches in an effort to get his ace an elusive victory on a near-freezing night against the White Sox on Monday.
That would be the same White Sox who let their All-Star ace, Chris Sale, extend to 127 pitches on April 17. Sale hasn’t pitched since then because of a muscle strain near his elbow.
“I put myself in a no-win situation potentially,” said Renteria, who admitted Tuesday that he had a 125-pitch limit in mind as Samardzija took the mound for the ninth and that Dayan Viciedo would have been the final batter for Samardzija no matter what.
“If he doesn’t get that double play, I’m not going to let him face the next hitter,” Renteria said. “I’ve got to think about his health, his well-being, and the pitches he’s thrown.”
A front office that fired manager Grady Little in Boston a decade ago for allowing Pedro Martinez to pitch longer than advised in a playoff game watched anxiously.
“In general you don’t like to see a guy get up that high,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That said, we don’t have enough knowledge to know at what number things turn into danger and when they don’t. Because of that we try to focus a lot on pitch stress. …
“But certainly after an outing like that we’re all going to sit down and discuss it. If a guy went 104 pitches in five innings, we’d discuss that, too, because they’re probably equally stressful.”
By all indications, Samardzija pitched stress-free much of the night, at least until allowing his only two walks of the game with two outs in that ninth inning just ahead of Viciedo.
“Obviously, when he had the two walks in the ninth, that starts to raise your eyebrows,” Hoyer said. “Is he getting tired? Just because you’re a big, strong guy doesn’t mean you don’t get tired. … It’s certainly not a trend when it comes to his pitch counts, and obviously something we monitor going forward.”
Coincidentally, Tuesday was the 16th anniversary of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game, a 122-pitch masterpiece in his fifth career start. He would go on to exceed that total five more times in the next 3½ months and finished the season on the DL with an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery.
Nobody’s suggesting Samardzija is suddenly in danger of injury. But it’s the heart of the risk-reward analysis that goes with any uncharted pitch-count territory.
Whether Samardzija wants to see it that way or not.
“That’s what you want to do as a pitcher,” he said of earning the right to extend. “The whole 100-pitch thing has just kind of become a big façade. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. You’ve got to go by the guy himself and the type of person he is. And they’ve let me go, and I’ve proven I can pitch late in the game. And that’s good.”
Samardzija might be with another team, after an anticipated July trade, by the time anybody knows for sure what his limits are.
“Would I do it again?” Renteria said. “I couldn’t tell you right now if I would or I wouldn’t. … It worked as far as far as him coming out of there with nine innings of one-run ball, and he showed everybody what he’s made of.
“I thought everybody was excited about it. But I couldn’t tell you that I’d do it again.”