Crowd rises for Samardzija's debut
Prospect throws eight pitches in relief, exits to standing 'O'
PHOENIX -- It's very rare for a Minor League pitcher to get a standing ovation after one inning in a Cactus League game, but Jeff Samardzija isn't an ordinary pitcher.
The former Notre Dame wide receiver threw eight pitches for the Cubs in one inning of relief in a 5-5 tie Saturday against Oakland, and got the ovation from fans behind the visitor's dugout at Phoenix Municipal Stadium after his spring debut.
"That was impressive," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said of the right-hander. "You can tell that this young man has played in front of 80,000 fans before. This crowd didn't bother him at all. He faced the middle of this Oakland lineup, he went right after [Eric] Chavez and a couple other left-handed hitters, and I think he was having fun out there, which is really important. It's going to be exciting for him."
Chavez flew out to center on the first pitch from Samardzija leading off the sixth. Mark Ellis then fell behind, 0-2, before working the count full and grounding out. Ellis broke his bat in the process, and so did Travis Buck, who connected on the first pitch. But Buck grounded out, with Samardzija fielding the large end of the bat.
"I didn't know where that thing was going," Samardzija said of the broken bat. "I just stuck my glove up and made sure it didn't hit me in the chest."
Was it like catching a football?
"Nah, not even close," he said. "I don't catch those any more."
He may have played in front of large crowds at football games, but even Samardzija was a little antsy. His fastball was clocked at 94-98 mph, and averaged 97 mph.
"I was wondering how it was going to be with emotions going and everything," Samardzija said. "It was good, it was everything I wanted."
The Cubs had him in the bullpen for the first two games so he could get a feel for things.
"We made sure we were pitching him with a team wearing green so he feels nice and comfortable," Piniella said.
Samardzija looked like a natural in Cubs blue.
"This is the first of anything," Samardzija said. "You want to get out there, get your shot, and work through it. It was nice to get out there. It was real good to throw some early strikes, which used to do me in."
But pitching in front of a standing room only crowd of 10,074 in Phoenix in March is different from playing in a major college bowl game.
"You're not behind equipment and you're in the middle of a diamond," he said. "Either or, it doesn't hurt to get chances to play in front of a lot of people. You've got to have fun with it."
Nerves are to be expected. Sean Gallagher admitted that his legs were shaking when he was on the mound Friday.
"Sometimes that nervous energy is good, and sometimes it's not as good," Piniella said. "[Gallagher] had a little adrenaline and threw like a veteran pitcher. A couple other kids we've thrown have tightened up a little bit, and quit thinking and started throwing, and they got hit pretty good. Invariably, they all have to go through that. Once they're out there a few times, obviously they get better."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.