SURPRISE, Ariz. — For the second consecutive game, Jeff Samardzija faced another Opening Day starter and watched him dominate.
On Monday, 2013 San Francisco Giants Opening Day starter Matt Cain threw five perfect innings against Samardzjia, thusly honored by the Cubs on Thursday.
On Saturday, the Kansas City Royals’ James Shields, who will make the sixth Opening Day start of his career, missed a perfect six innings by inches.
Shields allowed one hit, a third-inning infield single to third baseman Christian Villanueva. He struck out 10 split-squad Cubs, whose starting lineup featured few big-leaguers, with nary a walk.
Shields must have whiffed “17 in four innings,” Samardzija joked.
“It’s fun to watch a guy like that,” he said. “He’s a top-of-the-line guy.”
Whether you can say the same about Samardzija — or whether he’s simply the best the Cubs have got — is a hot spring question among fans who question his trade value and a deal’s likelihood.
Samardzija struggled Saturday, allowing seven hits, three walks and four runs in 3 2/3 innings in a game the Cubs rallied to win 6-5.
Spring results are rarely cause for alarm, especially when comparing dueling starting pitchers facing different calibers of hitters.
Samardzija, whose ERA in Arizona is 6.39, had already identified the cause of Saturday’s woes.
“My fastball was up in the zone,” he said. “I can live up in the zone with my off-speed pitches, because guys are aggressive with my fastball. I can usually can get that double-clutch in their swing.
“But when my fastball’s up in the zone, that’s what they’re looking for and they’re seeing it up.
“That’s when I get hurt.”
He allowed two homers — to Jarrod Dyson and Johnny Giavotella — but seemed more annoyed by bloop singles.
“A couple of those jam shot hits that fall in — up in the zone,” he said. “If you get those down, they turn into ground balls and strikeouts.”
His arm felt strong during 87 pitches; he’ll get above 90 in his next start, taper down for his final spring appearance and be ready for the March 31 opener in Pittsburgh.
“Hopefully, when we boil down the last seven to 10 days, you’re starting to really hone in, really focus, bear down, because the season is getting ready to start,” manager Rick Renteria said.
“So commanding the zone is obviously really important, being able to execute pitches when he wants to, run the sequences of pitches with the catchers that he needs to battle the hitter.”
Samardzija said Saturday’s game was a bit more “realistic,” as the Royals gave the heart of their lineup — Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas — three at-bats apiece. With the bases loaded, two outs and a full count in the third, Samardzija got Moustakas to fly to center.
“That’s actually the first time I’ve ever seen him pitch,” Shields said. “He’s got lively stuff, man. He’s got really good stuff. He’s a competitor. That’s what I like about him.
“The things I’ve seen on TV — he competes. I like that in pitchers. I think he’s gonna throw 200 innings and help that team win ballgames.”