Samardzija in control of everything but his record
Right-hander winless in last 13 outings, but raising his value with each start
CHICAGO -- Jeff Samardzija is as competitive as any pitcher of this era, which he demonstrated time and time again against the White Sox on a 41-degree night at Wrigley Field.
However, it seems that Samardzija is just as competitive at the bargaining table as he is on the mound. So, as the third year of the Theo Epstein era rolls along for the Cubs, an organization in need of pitching remains unsure of what to do with its best pitcher.
It's tough to envision Epstein, the president of baseball operations, and general manager Jed Hoyer following through on a high volume of speculation by trading away Samardzija this July, when the 29-year-old is still 1 1/3 seasons away from free agency. But attempts to work out a contract extension have thus far gone nowhere, with Samardzija telling CSNChicago.com recently that he doesn't plan to sign one of "these crummy early deals for seven or eight years."
Samardzija is bold enough to bet on himself, and this season, he's backing up his confidence with a breakout performance.
"He's doing what you want a Major League pitcher to do," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said after Samardzija was left with a no-decision in a 3-1, 12-inning loss on Monday. "He's giving us a great chance to win ballgames. Today was a fantastic effort on his part."
Samardzija also started 2013 fast but faded to a 1.0 WAR, which ranked 185th among pitchers. He entered the opener of Chicago's City Series fourth, behind only Johnny Cueto, Jose Fernandez and Max Scherzer, and he pitched like a guy who belonged in elite company.
Samardzija wasn't just an ace. He was a horse.
White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana retired the first 14 hitters and took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, yet Samardzija found a way to one-up him. He was so focused, so dominant and, well, so overdue for something good to happen behind him that Renteria let him bat for himself in the eighth inning, with the score tied at 1.
"What a great outing -- gritty, gutsy, everything you ask for," Renteria said. "We wanted that game for him, we just couldn't pull it out. … He was still strong. In the eighth, he was still blowing. We hoped he'd get through that ninth like we did and we'd score him a run, but it didn't work out."
Samardzija is 0-3 and hasn't had a win since last August -- a victim of poor run support in a luckless stretch of 13 starts. The only run off him on Monday was unearned, the result of third baseman Mike Olt committing a first-inning throwing error.
When Samardzija finally left the game, after getting Dayan Viciedo to hit into a rally-killing double play on his 126th pitch, he had cut his earned run average to 1.62, second to Cueto in the National League. But, more importantly, he had tested his limits and passed all tests.
"That's what it's all about," Samardzija said about being entrusted to work nine innings. "As a pitcher, your job is to every day go out and when you get those situations, to prove that they made a right decision."
Samardzija's pitch total was a career high, but he felt great afterward.
"That's what you want to do as a pitcher," he said. "You want to pitch deep in the game. This whole 100-pitch thing has just kind of become this facade. It doesn't mean anything. You have to go by the guy, himself, and the type of person he is. They let me go and I've proven I can pitch late in the game. That's good. You always want that."
The former Notre Dame wide receiver had his USC game face on throughout an outing in which he allowed three hits, walked two (both in the ninth inning, on fumes) and struck out seven. Samardzija made a magical play on the mound, turning his back to the plate to grab a mile-high chopper from Viciedo with his bare hand and spinning to throw, but first baseman Anthony Rizzo couldn't handle his low bullet to first.
Samardzija laughed afterward, saying it was his first over-the-shoulder catch since the Sugar Bowl. He even got the Cubs' only hit off Quintana, driving a double to the brown ivy on the left-field wall leading off the sixth inning. Samardzija scored the tying run on a Junior Lake's sacrifice fly.
When Samardzija is on, which has generally been every inning of 2014, he combines command with power. He was throwing 95-mph fastballs into the seventh inning against the White Sox and almost never went to a three-ball count until late in the game. Samardzija threw two strikes for every ball and provided no one with a comfortable at-bat, including Jose Abreu.
Samardzija had Abreu 0-2 in the first inning, but the American League Player of the Month lifted a sacrifice fly to right field, making the Cubs pay for Olt's throwing error. Samardzija pitched carefully to him in the ninth, throwing Abreu four sliders before walking him on a fastball that ran inside. That speaks both to the instant respect afforded Abreu and Samardzija's intelligence.
One of Epstein's first decisions in Chicago was to allow Samardzija the chance to move from the bullpen to the rotation. Samardzija's boldness made that happen, as he asked for the chance in his get-acquainted talk with the new regime, and now he's being equally bold by believing he can pitch himself a rung or two higher on the ladder before accepting a long-term contract.
White Sox GM Rick Hahn paid the Cubs a compliment Monday, saying they are "on the doorstep of a nice run." But only the wildest optimist sees them as being less than two years away, and Samardzija will be 31 in 2016.
Will Samardzija still be the same high-octane warrior he was on Monday night? No one knows.
But can the Cubs really afford to trade Samardzija away? And what's the rush, anyway?
Since Samardzija can't become a free agent until after 2015, why not let this play out for 30 starts this season and revisit those negotiations the first time snow is on the ground next fall?
Imagine Samardzija with a strong team around him, one that is as confident in itself as he is in himself. These no-decisions would turn into wins real fast.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.