Samardzija's best may be yet to come

Still developing as a starter, Giants righty shuts down Rockies

April 13th, 2016

DENVER -- Jeff Samardzija is 31. In the baseball world, that means he should be in the prime of his career.

Samardzija, however, is the outlier.

It is his future, not his present, that has people talking.

It is his future, not his present, that lured the Giants into signing him to that five-year, $90 million contract this past offseason.

And it is his future that was very much on display in the present, in the Giants' 7-2 victory against the Rockies at Coors Field.

Samardzija went eight innings -- matching Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers and Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays for the longest effort by a pitcher in the early going of this season. He gave up two runs -- one on a double-play ground ball and the other on a two-out popup that fell out of the reach of left fielder Angel Pagan.

Oh, and Samardzija did it at Coors Field, where three of his five strikeouts came at the expense of Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, who had hit seven home runs in the six previous games of this season.

That was a sight San Francisco was hoping to see when it signed Samardzija and Johnny Cueto during the offseason, planning to slot them into the second and third spots in the rotation behind Madison Bumgarner. The Giants were banking on what Cueto has been and what they feel Samardzija can be.

"He is a competitor," manager Bruce Bochy said of Samardzija. "He has great stuff. The guy's potential is so high."

Potential? Age 31?

Yep, potential. Samardzija gets it.

"I took a different path to get here than a lot of people do," he said.

Samardzija grew up more a football player than a baseball player. He played football, basketball and baseball at Valparaiso (Ind.) High School, but it was in football where he was a three-time All-Star selection. He went to Notre Dame on a football scholarship and did play baseball when his football schedule allowed, but it was in football where he was a two-time All American.

Baseball, however, had its lure. A fifth-round selection of the Cubs in June 2006, Samardzija signed with the team the following winter, and in January 2007, he announced he was foregoing the NFL draft to play baseball. By late July 2008, he had made it to the big leagues, but the learning process was, and is, ongoing.

Samardzija didn't become a starting pitcher until 2012. He was 35-52 in those four years, but what the Giants saw was a live arm, the kind that can run a slider up to 95 mph, and durability. Samardzija did pitch 822 innings the past four seasons, 10th among big league pitchers, just 23 1/3 fewer than Bumgarner.

"I take pride in the old-school mentality of pitching late into games, resting the bullpen arms," he said. "I have an obligation to pitch deep in games and I want to do my job."

Samardzija is made to order for pitching coach Dave Righetti's magical touch. And already there are signs of development with the adaptation of a bit of a twist to the delivery, designed to slow Samardzija's body down en route to releasing the ball.

"It's only been two starts so we are still ironing some things out," he said, "but my windup was great tonight."

Samardzija was on target against the Rockies at Coors Field, where he has now allowed three runs in 15 1/3 innings of two career starts.

"I was thinking six or seven innings, but I couldn't take him out," said Bochy. "He kept getting better."

Better as in Samardzija threw 111 pitches, 72 strikes, in eight innings, but only 23 of those pitches, 16 of which were strikes, came in the final three innings of his effort -- five in the sixth and nine each in the seventh and eighth innings.

"I pitched in Wrigley Field for a few years," he said. "That allows you to put the elements in the back of your head and let it go."

And the way Samardzija let it go against Colorado was a major step for him in reaching that level of consistency that San Francisco is banking he can attain.

"To have a good start early is nice," he said. "It gets you off on the right foot. That's important. I know last year, I got off on a bad foot and it wasn't fun. I wanted to have a good start to the season."

Samardzija took a step in that direction Tuesday. And the Giants are banking he is just beginning to find his way down the big league path.