When Jeff Samardzija talks about how quick and impressive the Cubs’ turnaround has been since he was making Opening Day starts for the team, he includes the money spent on free agents.
“That’s a big part of it, too,” he says.
Wait, wasn’t Samardzija the guy they were going to spend the big money on?
Apparently, that’s funny, because Samardzija laughs.
“That was a long time ago,” he says.
When Samardzija takes the mound for the Giants Thursday as the first Cubs Opening Day starter to start for another team at Wrigley since Jon Lieber in 2005, he’ll be just 26 months removed from the trade the netted the Cubs Addison Russell from the Athletics.
He’ll be less than 27 months removed from the Cubs’ last multiyear offer before trading him – less than 10 from a meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein at a Southport pub to talk about returning on a value-building, one-year, albeit, generous, deal.
But that’s not what’s on his mind as the calendar turns to September with the Giants in a tight National League West race.
“It’s time to put up or shut up,” he said. “It’s that time of the year.”
Specifically, as he takes the mound Thursday, he has beating the Cubs on his mind to open the Giants’ September stretch drive.
“That should be a pretty crazy experience, for sure,” said Samardzija, who pitched against the Cubs for the White Sox on the South Side last year. “Anytime September baseball’s happening, it’s exciting, especially when two teams are in the hunt and looking to be playing good going into the [postseason].”
When the Cubs negotiated with Samardzija the two seasons leading up to his trade to Oakland, they envisioned him as core piece to this contender, if at a hometown discount. The big right-hander, who lobbied to become a starter as Epstein took over before the 2012 season, bet on himself instead.
Neither side has looked back.
Samardzija, who signed a five-year, $90 million deal with the Giants over the winter, is pitching this month to put the Giants in the playoffs and earn his first postseason start – and what would be his first playoff appearance since he was a rookie reliever with the Cubs’ 2008 division champion.
“I’ve been through a lot of experiences in my sports career to understand that September starts in the fall with two teams in it – you’re probably going to get a handful of those in your life,” said the former Notre Dame football star who was touted as a big-stage performer for the Cubs.
“Regardless of the opponent, or who you’re playing for, you don’t want to waste those opportunities,” Samardzija (11-9, 4.00) said, “just because they’re special moments.”
Samardzija, who has a 1.75 ERA over his last four starts, has no regrets about spurning the Cubs’ one-year proposal as he and the Giants fight for their playoff lives over the next month.
He also said it’s not surprising the Cubs are where they are heading into the four-game weekend series.
“You’ve still got to go out and do it,” he said, “and that’s the thing that they’ve done really well. They’ve had the chips, but they’ve also gone out and proved they can play together and win close games, too. That’s always a telling sign of how things are going for a team.”
If the Cubs are embracing targets, Samardzija – a first-time father this year – is embracing the opportunity he has over the next five years with a team that has won three of the past six World Series.
Starting now, this September, this start in his old home ballpark.
“I remember being in college and everyone would say enjoy running out of that tunnel,” he said. “I’m like, `I’ve got four years here; I’m not too worried about it.’ Then you blink and it’s over.
“When it’s all said and done, I just don’t want to leave anything out there on the table and to know that in those games you showed up, gave it all you had and had fun doing it, and enjoyed the moments.”