Samardzija proves himself as a starter

PITTSBURGH -- Just because Jeff Samardzija's season was being cut short, it didn’t mean his final outing would be as well.

Allowed to extend to the 120-pitch mark, Samardzija made it count with the first complete game of his career and the first one from a Chicago Cubs pitcher this season.

“That was a special night for him and the team to win two in a row after what just happened in Washington,” manager Dale Sveum said after the 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “It was big for him to be that so-called No. 1 guy to step up and give us back-to-back wins for the first time on the road in I don’t know how long.”

It was the first time since the last time the Cubs were in Pittsburgh in late June and Samardzija had a victory in one of those games too.

There were only nine victories total this season for the right-hander, a number that could have been higher with better luck and more run support. But Samardzija was only looking at the positives when he thought of his long road from fighting for a rotation spot in the spring to posting a 3.81 ERA in 174 2/3 innings this season.

“It feels great,” Samardzija said. “I remember telling myself when I went out for the ninth inning, just looking back at everything that has happened over the past few years and how much I put pressure on myself for this season. I asked to be a starter and I wanted to go from tape to tape and prove that I can be the guy they needed me to be.”

Samardzija will stick around for the final month but he is under strict orders to not throw any more pitches, meaning there won’t even be any more side sessions. He won’t be getting a completely free ride, though, as Sveum said he still might use Samardzija as a pinch runner down the stretch.

After being allowed to go the distance Saturday he would probably be willing to return the favor in any way he was asked.

But the prospect of a happy ending looked bleak in the opening inning. Not only did Samardzija need 27 pitches to get through the first inning, he gave up two runs. He was so hyped for the outing he had a hard time settling down.

He eventually did relax, though, and single Cubs runs in the second and third inning helped. The Cubs then took a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning.

But hope for a victory seemed to be slipping away in the seventh inning. A Starlin Castro throwing error with two outs put a runner on second and pinch hitter Jeff Clement drove in the tying run with a single.

But David DeJesus helped save the day with a two-out RBI single in the eighth inning. From there Samardzija retired the last six batters he faced to close out the victory.

Samardzija typically wears his emotions on his sleeve but he stayed calm even after the Castro error and the game-tying RBI.

“I just told (Castro), ‘Let’s get the next one,’” Samardzija said. “I knew we had a lefty coming up and I was going to throw some sinkers and I figured he might get another ground ball. Castro is a heck of a player and when he’s into the game and pays attention to what’s going on there aren’t too many guys who are better. We depend on him and we’re going to need him for many years down the road.”

Samardzija showed this season that he also has a key role in the future and Sveum has even hinted that an Opening Day start could be his as early as next year.

For now though, Samardzija gets a chance to bask in what he just accomplished during a season that was otherwise a huge disappointment. He still won’t say “I told you so,” though, about how he came through in a starting role.

“I’m not that kind of guy,” he said. “Your actions speak louder on the field than anywhere else. I just knew what I needed to do and I knew I had a lot of question marks around myself coming into the year, especially... coming into last year too. But I knew where I was going as a pitcher and wanted to keep improving.

“I wanted to get that experience late in games like that. You don’t get those opportunities to often and you want the staff and everyone to know that in those situations, they can trust you and keep giving you the ball to go back out there.”