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Opening Day starter Samardzija's focus on competing

Right-hander aims to reduce walks, set tone for Cubs' rotation in 2014

MESA, Ariz. -- Anthony Rizzo never saw Jeff Samardzija in a Notre Dame football game, but he's seen highlights of the All-American wide receiver. What Rizzo does know is his Cubs teammate has that football mentality.

"He brings that intensity to the table every time he's out there," Rizzo said of Samardzija. "That's what every great pitcher does, whether they do it quietly, calm or crazy, it doesn't matter as long as they go out there and compete."

Samardzija will make his second straight Opening Day start on Monday against the the Pirates. It's the second consecutive year the two teams have opened the season at PNC Park, and he will be the first pitcher ever to start back-to-back Opening Days there.

Last April 1, Samardzija gave up two hits over eight scoreless innings, striking out nine in a 3-1 Chicago win. He finished 8-13, but was one of four National League pitchers to reach 200 innings and 200 strikeouts. It was the first time Samardzija hit the 200 mark in those two categories.

When named the Cubs' Opening Day starter, the only question was which uniform would he wear. The right-hander's name has been mentioned in trade rumors since last season, and every time a pitcher was injured this spring, writers went to spellcheck to tap in Samardzija's name again. He just shrugs at the nagging questions. His goal? To pitch for the Cubs.

"I just want to compete, that's what I love to do," Samardzija said. "I love to compete. It doesn't matter what we're doing, it doesn't matter if we're in a parking lot or a big league field, I just love to compete and that's the bottom line."

There's that "competitor" theme again.

"He sets the tone for every pitcher," Rizzo said. "Jeff's our horse who we're going to rely on every time he's out there to go deep into the game. Hopefully, he throws a complete game. We need to score runs for him."

Samardzija got his first Opening Day assignment in his second season in the rotation. Ryan Dempster, who was the Cubs' Opening Day starter in 2011-12, had six seasons of at least 200 innings before he got the nod. Carlos Zambrano, who started six consecutive season openers from '05-10, had two 200-inning seasons under his belt.

Samardzija, 29, has been pressed into the role of veteran on a young Cubs staff.

"When we had Dempster, when we had [Matt] Garza, even when we had Scott Feldman, being able to put [Samardzija] in a position around some veterans was nice to have," Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio said. "Now he is our veteran guy along with Edwin Jackson. Like it or not, that's the position he's in.

"I think he relishes that position," Bosio said. "I think that's what he wants. He wants to be that guy. I think Jeff is going to come into his own this year. He knows he's in for a battle as the No. 1 guy."

He'll have to be on top of his game, especially with a team that didn't provide much support last year. The Cubs were shut out in six of his 33 starts, and he gave up three or fewer runs in five of those six games, and two or fewer in three. He exited four starts with a lead that the Cubs would relinquish.

"Both he and Travis Wood are very aware of the situation we're in," Bosio said. "We're in a transition period with the ballclub, but they also know they have to pitch their [rear ends] off every day because everybody is going to come after them because Jeff is No. 1 and Travis is an All-Star."

If Samardzija was bothered by the lack of run support, he didn't show it.

"He gives up a couple runs, who cares?" Rizzo said of his teammate. "He's ready to get the next guy out. I don't pitch so I don't know how hard it is, but I think our whole staff does a good job when things get away from them -- they can get it back on track."

The goal this year is to repeat the 200/200 statistics, and reduce the number of walks in half. The right-hander impressed Bosio with his preparation this spring.

"Jeff, he's a creature of habit," Bosio said. "He's probably our most regimented starting pitcher as far as his conditioning, his shoulder program and how he goes about his business. We're talking about a guy who's been starting three years and what he accomplished last year is big. Being a young pitcher, trying to find himself on a team trying to find itself, it's not an easy thing to ask, especially for him to be a No. 1."

The other goal this season is to pitch more efficiently so Samardzija can go deeper in games. He ranked second on the Cubs with 19 quality starts, trailing Wood, who finished with 24.

"Every year, [Samardzija] gets better and better," Cubs catcher Welington Castillo said. "He is what he is -- he's going to go right after a hitter. I like his mentality now. He wants to be down in the strike zone and get quick outs. I think that's a good idea. He wants to go out and compete every day."

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