Jeff Samardzija has had an August to forget

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SHARE Jeff Samardzija has had an August to forget

BY DAN MCGRATH

For the Sun-Times

ACubs executive allowed himself a grateful smile as he watched a crowd headed toward 40,000 file into Wrigley Field for a game against the Giants last week.

“It’s so nice to be playing meaningful baseball this time of year,” he said.

Thanks to a favorable bit of scheduling, the sentiment spread eight miles south this weekend. Larger, more boisterous crowds than usual turned out at U.S. Cellular Field to see if the White Sox could extend the relevance of their season in Round 2 of the Crosstown Showdown.

They really needed a sweep to back their bold “we’re still in this” claim, but that possibility left the ballyard with the 1,200 feet worth of home runs Jeff Samardzija yielded in the 6-5 loss Friday.

That was a bombs–away slugfest. The game Saturday was a more tautly played pitcher’s duel that didn’t turn out any better for the Sox after they mucked it up with some lampshade-on-the-head fielding.

And they inadvertently contributed to the burgeoning legend of Kyle Schwarber.

In the fifth inning of a 1-all tie, the Sox chose to walk Dexter Fowler and face Schwarber with two outs and Addison Russell at second base. The rookie promptly rifled a single into right field, bringing Russell home with the go-ahead run. Miscues in the field helped the Cubs tack on three additional runs in a 6-3 victory that was their ninth straight and 15th in 16 games.

They might never lose again.

Samardzija has enjoyed cult-figure popularity since his arrival in Chicago, his working-class ethnic background, surfer-dude persona and sparkling Notre Dame football pedigree all contributing. He was considered a major get for the White Sox over the winter, in part because he didn’t cost them much and seemed amenable to a long–term relationship as he entered the final year of a hefty contract.

Now, maybe not. Samardzija has embodied the maddening inconsistency that has characterized the 2015 White Sox: dominant in some starts, quite a bit less so in others, including successive poundings in his last three outings.

Much like the Sox, who have been running in place all season, offsetting every step forward with a dispiriting slide back.

They came into this Cubs series feeling good about themselves after a three-game sweep of the Angels, but in baseball, momentum is only as real as today’s starting pitcher. In Game 1, that was Samardzija, and he didn’t have it.

He might still be the best wide receiver in town, though.

Not that Samardzija bears sole responsibility for the Sox’s uneven season. Melky Cabrera has extended his July hitting tear into August and will finish with numbers approximating his career norms, Avisail Garcia has discovered his power stroke and Alexei Ramirez has shaken the rust off his glove and rediscovered the art of fielding.

But where were they April through June?

The Sox insist they won’t turn their attention to 2016 until the standings tell them there’s no longer anything to play for this season. But does it make sense to keep 24–year–old Trayce Thompson on the bench when Adam LaRoche’s struggles call to mind Adam Dunn with less size and less pop?

Rookies Carlos Sanchez and Tyler Saladino are playing every day and offer significant upgrades in the field — third baseman Saladino made three successive highlight-reel plays in the second inning Saturday — but they’re hitting a combined .233 with minimal power. Light sticks are a luxury few teams can afford in the hitter–heavy American League.

Samardzija’s reputation has exceeded his results throughout his career, and at 30, he’s no longer a case of untapped potential. He owns 39 wins as a Chicago pitcher — 12 more than notorious Edwin Jackson — and is 13-14 with a 4.01 ERA since the Cubs traded him to Oakland last July. Mike Leake, also a free agent-to-be, is 14–12, 3.64 over the same period. Leake is 62-48, 3.86 for his career, and at 27, three years younger than Samardzija. But no one talks of Leake as a $20 million-a-year staff ace.

Samardzija, by now, should have claimed that distinction if he were up to it. But with starting pitching always at a premium, he might be regarded as one as he enters free agency; he is strong, healthy and durable, fifth in the American League in innings pitched despite periodic struggles.

And no one ever questioned his heart.

Samardzija will not be without suitors. Just not here, when it seemed so perfect. Things aren’t always as they seem in baseball. Who saw the Cubs coming this fast?

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