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Samardzija honored to pitch opener

Homegrown talent gets ball for Game 1

The Cubs announced on Sunday that Jeff Samardzija will be the opening day starter for the team.
The Cubs announced on Sunday that Jeff Samardzija will be the opening day starter for the team.

MESA, Ariz. – After announcing that Matt Garza will start the season on the disabled list Sunday, manager Dale Sveum revealed the obvious.

Former Notre Dame football star Jeff Samardzija will be the Cubs' opening-day starter on April 1 in Pittsburgh.

It has been a long and crooked road for Samardzija since he signed a 5-year, $10 million deal in 2007 after only 30 innings of pitching at Class A.

The big contract for an unproven pitcher was necessary to persuade Samardzija not to enter the NFL draft, where he likely would have been a first-round pick. But the contract became an albatross as Samardzija went through some growing pains, leaving some to wonder whether former general manager Jim Hendry put his Notre Dame-loving heart before his head.

Samardzija was up and down from Triple-A Iowa to the Cubs, both starting and relieving from 2008 to 2011 before finally getting his chance to stick in the rotation last spring.

"I went through some humbling baseball experiences in '09 and '10," Samardzija said. "It puts a lot of things in perspective. I'm excited. The best thing as an athlete is [doing] all your hard work and you see positive gains from it.

"It gets you to keep working hard and keep improving. You get a little taste of success and you want that to keep going. I really feel that's where I'm at right now. I want to keep the ball rolling for sure."

With Garza out, the choice was between Samardzija and free agent Edwin Jackson. Samardzija had the upper hand, in part, because he's a homegrown kid from Northwest Indiana and a fan favorite.

"He is one of those guys you want out there," Sveum said. "That intensity he brings. ... He is a guy the players rally around because of his bulldog mentality when he is on the mound. It is a very obvious choice, really. He is that guy that it's game on when he is pitching that day. And the other 4 days he is not pitching, he doesn't just sit around. He is in every game. He is falling into that leadership role as well."

Jackson said he agreed with the decision.

"I'm happy for him," Jackson said. "He's the face of the organization, a homegrown guy. He deserves it."

Sveum is counting on Samardzija to help lead the team. The two have a special relationship that goes beyond baseball. Samardzija said it's based on one word – trust.

"It's the same thing when you choose your friends," he said. "You want honest dudes that are going to be straight up with you, but at the same time have the big picture in mind about having fun, doing things the right way.

"It's simple. This game is not a complicated game. You run balls out, you work hard and that's it. Dale and I were on the same page with that from day one, what we wanted. We just want to win ballgames, that's it."

Samardzija file

Age: 28

Hometown: Merrillville, Ind. 

B/T: R/R

Height/Weight: 6-5/225

2012 stats: 9-13, 3.81 ERA, 174 2/3 IP, 180 SO, 56 BB 

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