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Will Samardzija's start affect Cubs' plan?

CINCINNATI -- Based on Jeff Samardzija's five starts this season, one question is inevitable when the Chicago Cubs face the Cincinnati Reds on Monday night: How are the Cubs going to blow this one?

That question might cross your mind often these days for Chicago (8-16), but it's a thought that especially rings true when Samardzija pitches. No pitcher in 100-plus years has started the season with five consecutive games of seven or more innings pitched while giving up two or fewer runs without recording at least one victory, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Samardzija is the first.

He's 0-2 with a 1.53 ERA, and the Cubs have won just one of the games he's started. No wonder Milwaukee Brewers starter Matt Garza said over the weekend that when you play for the Cubs, you're just "hoping to win." That's about all Samardzija can do when he leaves a game: hope. Either that or go all nine innings. That might be next, considering his improved pitch efficiency.

Samardzija has vowed to go longer into games, to throw fewer pitches early to last longer. So far this year he's taken that step, which might vault him into one of the elites of the league. It's early, but the numbers are promising. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Samardzija is averaging 14.9 pitches per inning, which ranks 24th out of 109 qualified pitchers. His strike percentage is up from 63.7 percent last year to 65.8 percent this season. His zone percentage is also up, from 48 percent to 51 percent.

What does this all mean? In short, it means Samardzija is pitching to contact and not concerned about strikeouts while walking fewer batters. He's never thrown seven innings or more in five consecutive starts until this month. He's a different pitcher.

So does that mean the Cubs are more willing to give him the big contract extension he wants if he keeps this up? The answer, according to several veteran agents, is no.

Samardzija's agent, Mark Rodgers, won't comment on any negotiations and neither will the Cubs, but several observers don't believe anything has changed internally for the front office. Maybe it's simply that they aren't going to change their stance based on five starts or that no matter what he does between now and July 31, it won't warrant the kind of money he wants. As previously mentioned in this blog, think Homer Bailey and his six-year, $105 million extension with the Reds. Samardzija is looking for that kind of per-year average ($17.5 million). Or more.

One agent, who wanted to remain anonymous since he was talking about another agent's client, observed that if anything, the price is actually going up for Samardzija to stay with the Cubs. The feeling is simply that with every healthy start he completes, he's one start closer to free agency after the 2015 season. If 32 starts is the norm for a healthy pitcher, Samardzija is down to about 59 left before free agency. After Monday night, it's one less.

Most players -- especially a confident and healthy Samardzija -- will test the waters when they get that close to free agency. By late July, Samardzija will be less than a year and a half away, so the price might be at its highest if he keeps pitching as he has. That means a trade is still likely but not a guarantee. The Cubs might realize they need him a whole lot more than he needs them and ante up the money. Just don't count on it.

For now, the drama is about when he earns his first win. His first two starts, both shutouts by the opposition, were about a lack of offensive support. Then came one of reliever Jose Veras' meltdowns, although catcher Welington Castillo hit a home run to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in extra innings.

His fourth start lacked run support again, and the Cubs' defense let him down. The frosting on the cake was a blown 5-2 ninth-inning lead against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday, the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field's first game. Arizona scored five runs against three different relievers, and none was named Veras.

Bad luck? Or is this a sign to Samardzija to get out of town, as Garza referenced to reporters over the weekend in Milwaukee? Samardzija may not get a choice.