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Evolved Shark leads Giants' shutout over Rox

@mi_guardado
April 12, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO -- Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija’s opening pitch sequence to Rockies leadoff hitter Charlie Blackmon Thursday offered a revealing look at the way the 34-year-old veteran has evolved as a pitcher. More of a power arm in the past, Samardzija spoke this spring about wanting to alter his approach

SAN FRANCISCO -- Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija’s opening pitch sequence to Rockies leadoff hitter Charlie Blackmon Thursday offered a revealing look at the way the 34-year-old veteran has evolved as a pitcher.

More of a power arm in the past, Samardzija spoke this spring about wanting to alter his approach and incorporate more of his offspeed pitches earlier in games, especially as he worked his way back from a right shoulder injury that dogged him for most of the 2018 season.

He embraced this new mindset against the Rockies, using four different pitches -- cutter, four-seam fastball, sinker and slider -- to strike out Blackmon. It helped set the tone for a dominant night for Samardzija, who proceeded to strike out seven over seven shutout innings in the Giants’ 1-0 series-opening win at Oracle Park.

It was the first time Samardzija had pitched seven scoreless innings since Aug. 28, 2017, when he fired a three-hit shutout against the Padres.

“I think he’s definitely mixing up his pitches a little more, but he still uses his fastball very well,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “But he’s not a guy that’s trying to power his way through the lineup. He uses both sides of the plate with the fastball and helps set up the other pitches, and vice versa there. I think it’s fair to say he was more of a power guy, and he’s evolved as more of a pitcher. He really just did a beautiful job of pitching tonight. It was fun to watch.”

Kevin Pillar ensured that Samardzija’s brilliant outing didn’t go to waste, homering for the third time this week to snap a scoreless deadlock in the seventh. Pillar’s late-inning heroics gave Samardzija his first win since April 20, 2018.

“Last year was not a great year for me, but I learned a lot,” Samardzija said. “To go out and pitch 15 times or so with nothing and a hurt arm, even if it’s Double-A, Triple-A, it doesn’t matter -- you still figure out ways to get outs with B, C stuff. When you do go out there and feel good, you don’t take it for granted. It’s definitely been a little bit of an evolution for me and a process.”

Samardzija, who lowered his ERA to 1.62, held the Rockies to just three singles and one walk while throwing 90 pitches, 61 for strikes. He used an effective pitch mix to keep the Rockies’ hitters off balance, throwing 29 sinkers, 26 sliders and 26 cutters. He allowed only one runner to advance to scoring position and retired 10 of the final 11 batters he faced.

All of his strikeouts came on his offspeed pitches -- four with his slider and three with his cutter. Samardzija’s 13 swing and misses were his most in an outing since the 2017 season.

“I think he was really hitting his spots,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “The assortment of offspeed pitches and the running fastball were very good today. It looked to me like he was really hitting the corners with his slider. His fastball had some movement in on our right-handed hitters. The slower breaking ball, a little cutter, had some deception to it.”

Samardzija came into Spring Training as one of the Giants’ biggest question marks after posting a 6.25 ERA in 10 starts last year as he tried to grind through persistent pain in his right shoulder. The right-hander attempted to come back from the injury several times before shutting it down for good in August. He chose to remain in San Francisco over the offseason, rehabbing his arm and working to build up his strength and stamina.

“I’ve learned over this time that shoulders are their own beast and you need to respect them and understand that there’s a lot going on there,” Samardzija said.

Given the adversity he endured last year, Bochy said he was happy to see Samardzija rewarded on Thursday.

“This has to do a lot for his confidence,” Bochy said. “It was a long road he had to come back from last year. He was a warrior through all that, trying to pitch. We probably shouldn’t have had him out there a few times that we let him pitch because he was battling a lot of pain, probably more than he was telling us. He put in a lot of hard work this winter, and you can see his delivery, his arm slot, it’s just in a great spot right now.”

Maria Guardado covers the Giants for MLB.com. She previously covered the Angels from 2017-18. Follow her on Twitter.