GLENDALE, Ariz. — In the end, dollars and cents will matter more than anything to Jeff Samardzija. At least, they always seem to when it comes to free agency.
But the Sox might as well make the right-hander feel wanted, worthy and special if they have designs on extending his contract before he becomes a free agent or if they want to be in the mix when that time comes after the season. Naming him as their Opening Day starter Wednesday, the same day they announced a special section called the “Shark Cage” like Chris Sale’s section can’t hurt.
“I think it’s more special about the respect that it shows from the staff, and the confidence to go out and get the job done on a big day like that, so, yeah,” Samardzija said Thursday about getting the nod from manager Robin Ventura to take the not-ready-to-go Chris Sale’s spot agaisnt the Royals in Kansas City on April 6. “I’m just excited and you don’t want to let them down, right? You want to have a good performance and get the season off on the right foot.”
Samardzija is no stranger to openers, having pitched seven and eight scoreless innings, respectively, against the Pirates in Cubs uniform the last two seasons.
“You just have to worry about what you’re doing and what you can control,” Samardzija said. “They have a great fan base and were excited last time I was there [in a Wild Card game with the A’s] and I’m assuming they’ll be excited this time. Hopefully it’s nice and cold, 40 degrees and everybody all bundled up and having a good time.
“I’m excited, just to come out and represent this team and put on a good showing for everybody.”
Samardzija made sense for Robin Ventura because of his experience, although Jose Quintana’s resume isn’t too shabby, either. After all, Quintana has been around the Sox longer and is both good and a good soldier. But Samardzija, 30, carries himself in a way that says “Opening Day” and Quintana, 26 — whose performance during spring training last season was admittedly affected by contract extension negotiations that were going on — hasn’t done it.
“Just personality,” Ventura said of Samardzija’s persona. “There is part of the football [at Notre Dame] he has and the athletic part of him, attitude-wise and everything, it suits up well for him to be able to have an Opening Day. I think guys will be excited with him. Personality-wise he likes to go after it, and it’s a perfect time to do it.”
Knowing they might have him for only one season, the Sox acquired Samardzija in an offseason trade with the A’s. The addition of a needed righthander slotted between lefties Sale and Quintana was ideal, even if only for a year. The signings of closer David Robertson and Melky Cabrera followed (Adam LaRoche and Zach Duke were signed earlier) and made the Sox credible after two straight losing seasons.
The opener represents an official turning of the page.
“It gets engrained that it’s Opening Day, it’s not summer, usually it’s a little gloomy and overcast,” Samardzija said. “There is a certain smell in the air and feel to it. The first game, everyone is excited and everyone has it circled on the calendar.”
The Sox are clearly excited to have Samardzija, a Sox fan growing up in Valparaiso, Ind., and have given him his own fan section a la Sale’s before he has even thrown a pitch for them. Sections 154 and 155 at U.S. Cellular Field will be the designated “Shark Cage” with a total of more than 930 seats.
When Samardzija starts at home, fans with tickets in that section will get “Shark Cage” caps and fin-shaped strikeout cards. Tickets are $20 for most game in that section, except for Family Sundays ($15) and games against the Cubs.
“With the excitement around the season and Jeff’s nickname as ‘Shark’, it’s only natural that we offer an opportunity for fans to rally around his starts,” said Brooks Boyer, Sox vice president for marketing and sales.
As for those Cubs, who are on his calendar for a Cactus League start Thursday, Samardzija continued to downplay that one.
“Nah, it’s just a spring training game,” he said. “It doesn’t count. I know what I need to work on to get ready for the season and that’s what I’ll work on.”