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Samardzija shakes off nerves in spring debut

Cubs ace throws two scoreless innings after starting with four-pitch walk

MESA, Ariz. -- Jeff Samardzija's goal this season is to be more efficient, so walking the leadoff batter wasn't a good start.

"It must have been the fireworks or something," Samardzija said, laughing. "I think it was the first time the Cubbies ever had fireworks."

Samardzija started in the Cactus League opener in the first game at new Cubs Park on Thursday, and survived that first-inning glitch and the fireworks to turn in two scoreless innings with a pair of strikeouts.

The right-hander has been a hot topic in trade rumors, and there were plenty of scouts at the game, and not just for the commemorative pin celebrating the stadium's debut.

"You're not really worried about too much," Samardzija said of the scouts. "You assume they're there every game. I want to put on a good show for them."

The Blue Jays and D-backs were among the teams believed to be interested in adding the right-hander to their rotation. Did he even think about pitching for Arizona?

"No, I've only played for the Cubbies, so I only know one team to play for and that's here," he said. "I don't worry about that too much."

Samardzija is spending this spring thinking more about throwing more strikes, and he has talked to teammate Travis Wood about that.

"That's one of our goals, to cut down on walks for me and him and for the staff and give it everything," Wood said. "We want to try to take a young team and try to win with it."

Cubs manager Rick Renteria has watched Samardzija from the other side of the field and been impressed.

"He's a guy who's going to take the ball every fifth day, very competitive, continues to want to hone his craft beyond just pitching 200 innings a year," Renteria said. "He wants to be a good pitcher. He wants to be a polished guy who can attack hitters in any given situation. He's got most of that battle already taken care of.

"I think every year he goes out there is basically showing he's getting closer and closer to what he wants to be in the end as a polished Major League pitcher."

That's what the scouts are looking for.

"If anything [the rumors] just put a chip on your shoulder and make you want to go out and prove even more," Samardzija said. "That's the thing about this game is that you're constantly going out to prove yourself. It doesn't matter what your contract situation is or anything like that. The only thing that matters is proving yourself that day against the team you're playing against.

"It's a tough game, so when you do do well, it feels good personally and you build on that for your next time out and the time after that," he said. "If you're not your own hardest critic and not checking yourself harder than anyone else, then you have a problem. I'm my hardest critic and I'll always be that way."

The rumors are not going to go away, and Samardzija knows that. The Cubs have talked to him about a long-term deal, but the two sides obviously haven't agreed on terms. The right-hander said he'd be surprised if he was dealt before the season began.

"From what it sounds like right now, we're going head over heels for the season with this team," Samardzija said of the Cubs. "Rick's made it very clear we're here to win, which I love. I love to hear him talk about his excitement for winning. Not development -- development is part of it, but Rick's No. 1 goal is winning, and me and him are 100 percent on the same page when it comes to that. We want to win, we want to win here and we want to win now."

To do that, Samardzija has to focus on his goal, which is being more efficient.

"His mentality is way different," Chicago catcher Welington Castillo said. "What I see the difference is that he's down in the zone. He told me, 'I want to get quick outs, early outs, so I can go longer in the game. I want to get my best pitch down in the zone and let them hit it.' He's pretty good. I hope he can continue to get better and better. He's one of those key guys for us, too."

Said Samardzija: "It's more a mentality change. It's preparation for each pitch. I get in trouble when I get caught up in my pitches and not taking my time and preparing for the next pitch. Today I was going through my sequences in between pitches and was confident with my pitch selection going in with the pitch."

Don't think the scouts didn't notice that.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs, Jeff Samardzija