CHICAGO -- Jeff Samardzija cleaned up rather nicely after his near complete game Sunday with the only sign that he took a shaving-cream pie to the face being a few white marks on the front of his blue undershirt.
It was his 8 2/3-inning outing against the Washington Nationals that was truly cleansing as his rebirth as a pitcher took center stage.
A relief pitcher for nearly all of his major league career to this point, the former Notre Dame wide receiver showed that his ability to reinvent himself remains alive and well.
He earned a spot in the starting rotation the old fashioned way this spring, with hard work, and he continues to reap the rewards from the base he established this winter.
In what was easily the longest outing of his career, Samardzija struck out eight and didn’t walk a batter in an arm-numbing 110 pitches as manager Dale Sveum held on as long as he could to allow his right-hander the chance to earn a complete game.
Had Starlin Castro been able to hit Bryan LaHair on the numbers with a throw for the final out, the complete game would have been Samardzija’s. Adam LaRoche followed with a home run to deep right field and all of a sudden a comfortable lead turned into a nail biter.
That Carlos Marmol came on to walk a batter before recording the final out on a foul popup was a story in itself, but this day was ultimately about Samardzija.
“That off day [Friday] and watching [Ryan Dempster] and [Matt] Garza, I knew I was going to be pretty fired up,” Samardzija said. “I was just worried about that first inning. I wanted to come out and keep myself intact and get through it and then go from there. I felt like I found a good groove.”
A groove indeed. After Ian Desmond opened the game with a double, Samardzija retired 15 consecutive batters, a streak that was helped by the fact that he was getting ahead of hitters. Samardzija went first-pitch strike to 25 of the 31 batters he faced.
“He didn’t have a lot of stress today at all,” Sveum said. “He was getting ahead in the count and putting guys away. To go into the ninth inning with whatever he had, 88 pitches going into the ninth inning, you know there isn’t a lot of stress going on. If he had one big stressful inning or something like that you might have made a different decision.”
Also huge was that the outing only required the bullpen to get one out instead of the multiple it had been required to get in the first two games. Samardzija, though, said that stepping up for the struggling relievers wasn’t part of his inspiration.
“I think our bullpen is fine,” he said. “There’s really no worries about them. It’s early in the season. I pitched in the bullpen last year I wasn’t too good early last year. I walked four guys against Milwaukee. I have total confidence to make my pitches and when my pitch count gets up then we’ll hand it over to the bullpen.”
Now comes the hard part of repeating himself start after start. Making it potentially tougher is that Samardzija won’t get an extra day to rest and recover this week before taking the mound again. His next outing will be Friday afternoon in St. Louis on the day the Cardinals get their World Series rings.
And if it comes to pass that he pitches just as brilliantly and Garza happens to cover him in another shaving cream pie, well Samardzija has been taking notes on that too.
“Yeah it was [my first],” Samardzija said. “Garza must have done it a few times. He got it in my nose and my mouth, my eyes. Don’t worry, he’s going to pitch good one game. I’m not worried about that.”