Last season, Jeff Samardzija simply wanted to prove he could be a starting pitcher for the Cubs.
This season, the big right-hander is on a mission to establish himself as one of the best starters in baseball.
“Absolutely,” he said. “If you don’t have that in mind and you don’t have those goals, you should rethink your situation.
“Obviously I want to be the best, but that’s proven on the field.”
Chicago manager Dale Sveum wasted little time naming the 28-year-old Samardzija his Opening Day starter and expects him to have a monster year.
“I expect for him to be one of the top 10 starters in all of baseball with that kind of stuff,” he said. “He’s got all the ability and now the experience to be one of those guys.”
Samardzija went 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA last season — his first as a starter — when the Cubs lost 101 games. He had a 2.58 ERA after the All-Star break and pitched his first career complete game in his final start, firing a four-hitter with nine strikeouts in a 4-3 win at Pittsburgh.
“He came into his own those last eight starts,” Sveum said. “He was just incredible.”
Samardzija also was impressive Saturday, firing five shutout innings in the Cubs’ 5-1 victory over the Texas Rangers in a split-squad exhibition before 9,005 on Big League Weekend at Cashman Field.
The former Notre Dame wide receiver, who allowed three hits and a walk with three strikeouts, pitched here last year on St. Patrick’s Day.
“I enjoy coming here and pitching,” he said. “The atmosphere is always outstanding, there’s great support for both teams and it’s always a live, rowdy atmosphere.
“It’s great to get that feeling of the season and still try to keep your emotions in check.”
Seven years after playing his last game for the Fighting Irish, the 6-foot-5-inch Samardzija — whose shoulder-length hair brings to mind Tim Lincecum before the barber got to him — still brings a football mentality to the mound.
“I call it gorilla pitching,” Sveum said. “Sometimes he’ll start trying to throw the ball as hard as he possibly can.
“He knows that it works sometimes but you can’t keep doing it inning after inning.”
Entering his sixth season with the Cubs, Samardzija said he has learned how better to harness his emotions.
“Early in my career, I always had to battle too much emotions and having that mentality,” he said. “To kind of suppress that for a while and really learn how to pitch as a pitcher helped out a lot. But there’s certain times when you need that little extra energy or that extra fire to get through tough situations.”
After finishing his Notre Dame career with school receiving records for yards (2,593), receptions (179) and touchdowns (27), Samardzija struggled over his decision to pursue a career in professional football, baseball or both.
“I loved them both, so it was going to be a tough decision either way,” he said. “I was intrigued by the amount of time I had put into football that I hadn’t put into baseball. I was intrigued by where the ceiling was and where we could get to.”
Samardzija said he didn’t watch all of Notre Dame’s football games this past season, when the Fighting Irish made a run to the BCS national championship game.
“I watch it here and there, but in the offseason you catch up on your sleep,” he said. “Those games start early.”
Samardzija said he’s not a big fan of the Fighting Irish’s basketball uniforms — “they’re terrible” — or team, either, something that stems from his childhood in Indiana.
“I remember growing up being a Notre Dame football fan as a kid and an (Indiana) Hoosiers fan for basketball because my dad was a big Bobby Knight guy,” he said. “He liked to take Bobby Knight’s coaching ways and apply them to 12-year-old Little League baseball, which was always interesting.”
Maybe that’s where the gorilla pitching really comes from.
■ NOTES — Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, the Rangers’ CEO, threw out the first pitch to Texas prospect Joey Gallo, the 2012 Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year for Bishop Gorman. ... Gallo entered at third base in the sixth inning and doubled in his only at-bat, a 420-foot drive off the center-field wall. ... Rangers prospect Drew Robinson, a Silverado grad, entered at first base in the seventh and struck out in his only at-bat.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354.