Even At 6-Foot-5, Giants See Room For Growth For Samardzija

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, with a long stride and the hair that waves in the wind, Jeff Samardzija has that mound presence that can intimidate. With an arsenal of as many as seven pitches and a fastball that is a solid mid-90s, he can overpower. And as a former All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame, whose father was a semipro hockey player, Samardzija can compete.

What’s been missing in Samardzija’s big league career has been the gaudy kind of stats that would seem to come natural with that size, power and competiveness.

Welcome to San Francisco, Jeff Samardzija. You have entered the world of manager Bruce Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti, who embrace the chance to add Samardzija to their lengthy list of pitching success.

Samardzija is what baseball people would call a young 31. He has slightly more than six years in the big leagues, but he’s only been a starting pitcher the past four years, and his amateur days on the mound were limited because of his commitment to football.

“It is not like he is some guy who has been banging it out since Little League,” Righetti said. “He has a fresh arm and a great attitude. He has an open-book personality.”

And Samardzija has, the Giants are convinced, a high ceiling that he hasn’t come close to reaching, which is why they invested a five-year, $90 million commitment to sign him off the free-agent market this offseason.

They know there is work to be done, but they like what there is to work with.

Samardzija can dominate, like he did in the first inning of the Giants’ 4-1 Cactus League-opening victory against the Angels at Scottsdale Stadium on March 2, needing only 10 pitches to get the game’s first three outs. And he can have to battle, like he did giving up a run in a 22-pitch second inning that began with a Carlos Perez double and saw Samardzija load the bases with one-out walks to Craig Gentry and Todd Cunningham, the No. 7 and 8 hitters in the lineup, then give up a sacrifice fly to Rafael Ortega.

Such has been life in the big leagues for Samardzija. Given a chance to start on a regular basis the past four seasons, he is a combined 35-52 with a 4.03 ERA in 126 starts. But Samardzija was impressive enough that he was a National League All-Star selection in 2014, his 2-7 record at the time of selection overshadowed by the 2.83 ERA he had compiled with the Cubs.

“It is pretty exciting to think what Rags can do with him,” said catcher Buster Posey, referring to Righetti. “Rags does special things.”

And the Giants are anxious to see how Samardzija fits in behind Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto in their rotation.

“The benefit of Posey, the benefit of Dave Righetti and (bullpen coach) Mark Gardner, the benefit of AT&T Park and the benefit of a support cast where he’s not expected to be the No. 1 or No. 2 guy, all those elements combined to allow us to make the investment,” general manager Bobby Evans said.

Big Challenge

Samardzija welcomes the challenge of joining the rotation of a franchise that has won three of the past six World Series.

“This organization is not going through the motions,” Samardzija said. “There’s a mindset. There are expectations. They have had the success here for a reason. There’s no busy work. They work to get better.

“There is a reason (World Series championships have) happened here. They develop talent the right way.”

It’s a way that Samardzija wants to take. He wants to be that guy the team knows it can count on. Samardzija gets that a pitcher’s win-loss record can be deceptive, like that first half he dealt with two years ago with the Cubs. But he also knows there are times he could be better than the 1-8 struggle he suffered through after rumors of being traded by the White Sox proved untrue last July.

Samardzija was winless in all six of his August starts, gave up four runs in 6 1/3 innings of a victory in his first start of September, and then lost two more games.

“It can wear on you,” he admitted of the ongoing rumors he dealt with last July. “You try to block them out, but there’s a stress.”

Now, Samardzija said, he is ready to take a deep breath. March 2 was a big day, his first day on the mound, wearing a Giants uniform and facing an opposing team.

“I don’t care how old you are, that first time,” he said. “I have been thinking of this for four months.”

And Samardzija has been thinking about what lies ahead.

“I love to pitch any chance I get to be out there and enjoy the moment,” he said. “I have a love for the game and I love it down to the core.”

Samardzija smiled.

“I go into every season feeling it is the most important of my career,” he said.

And this year arguably is the most important season of Samardzija’s career.

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