Such Sweet Relief

Forget the curses, the billy goats and the Bartmen—let's deal in the rational world: The Cubs are the most complete club in baseball, their mighty pen led by a nasty threesome that recalls the late-inning trio of Lou Piniella's last championship team
August 24, 2008

CHICAGO WASalways the destination. Had the call-up never come, Jeff Samardzija still lovedthe city enough that he would have shown up there in September, unpacked fromhis second full season pitching in the minors and settled into the condo hebought in May, 10 blocks from Wrigley Field and 59 miles from his boyhood homein Valparaiso, Ind. Under that scenario the Cubs' 23-year-old fireballer of thefuture would have been reduced to a spectator, tantalizingly close to thisyear's juggernaut. As the franchise chased its first world championship in acentury, Samardzija would have had time for more trivial tasks—sampling theLakeview nightlife or, perhaps finding someone to fix the leaks in the ceilingof his new place.

Opposing NationalLeague hitters might have preferred it that way. But here in the condo, on anidyllic Sunday afternoon before a mid-August game against the Cardinals, isSamardzija, reclining on his dark brown leather couch. He'd arrived from TripleA Iowa three weeks earlier, on July 25, after closer Kerry Wood went on the15-day disabled list with a blister. Forgive Samardzija if he hasn't gottenaround to repairing the ceiling. His golden right arm, which he used to go 4--1with a 3.13 ERA as a starter in Iowa, has earned him an early invite to theparty atop the NL Central, where the Cubs were perched at week's end with aleague-best 76--48 record, 5 1/2 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers.

And so the rookiesoon throws on a polo shirt over his Dark Side of the Moon tee, climbs into hisblack Escalade EXT and unhurriedly drives those 10 blocks, pausing to soak inthe scenery, mostly the pretty girls in their summer best, and to cue up LedZeppelin in his CD changer. "I understand how crazy this all is," hesays. "I'm not taking it for granted." Good Times Bad Times lasts twominutes and 46 seconds, enough to cover half the trip. He is a classic-rocknut, and he half-sings along. Samardzija's experiential scale has tippedheavily toward Good Times: In the last 18 months he was named an All-Americawide receiver at Notre Dame, chose not to become a first-round NFL draft pickand to instead sign a guaranteed five-year, $10 million deal with the Cubs.And, of course, he made it to the bigs. In his debut against the FloridaMarlins, he hit 99 mph on the gun and has not looked back: Through 11 reliefappearances—which at week's end had included one-inning stints, two-inningstints, even a save—he had a 1.20 ERA with a 3.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.He had also received a full vote of confidence from manager Lou Piniella."He's not intimidated," Piniella says. "I'm comfortable using himin just about any situation."

The Cubs' bullpenwas hardly in need of a savior, with Wood and righty setup man Carlos Marmolhaving put up All-Star first halves. Samardzija was merely a shot in the arm ata time when Wood was healing and Marmol was bouncing back from a briefmidsummer swoon. Piniella calls the bushy-haired kid the "finishingtouch" because the manager now has a potentially devastatingseventh-eighth-ninth-inning trio to shorten games come October. Piniella alsohas the NL's deepest overall pen (righties Bob Howry and Chad Gaudin and leftyNeal Cotts could be solid setup men anywhere else), its best rotation andhighest run differential (+166 through Sunday), all strong indicators that theWorld Series signs at Wrigley Field may not be presumptuous when they decreeIT'S GONNA HAPPEN.

IT WAS 18 yearsago that Sweet Lou, not yet gray-specked under his cap, won his last WorldSeries (and first as a manager), with the Reds. In Cincinnati he was blessedwith a dominant pen that featured righty Rob (Officer) Dibble and lefties Norm(the Genius) Charlton and Randy (the Gentleman) Myers. You remember them betteras the Nasty Boys, hard-throwing miscreants of a bygone era during whichvelocity was employed not just to set down batters (they had a combined 351 K'sin 339 innings in 1990) but knock them down as well. "We were pretty muchmean," Charlton, now the bullpen coach of the Seattle Mariners, says of theNasty Boys. "If you looked at us wrong, we would try to hit you."

It wasn't thenumber of batters that the Nasty Boys plunked (only eight in '90) thatmattered; the mere threat of getting nicked struck enough fear. But just asPiniella is far less likely, in 2008, to fight a reliever in the clubhouse (heonce famously grappled with Dibble after the pitcher had accused him of lying),the modern-day reliever is far less likely to court warnings or ejections fromincreasingly protective umpires.

"We used toknock guys down, and they'd get up, dust off and get back in the box,"Charlton says. "Do that now, and they'll charge the mound and you end upwith suspensions. The game has changed, and it's no longer accepted. The guysthe Cubs have now, they still throw inside, but why would they risk troublewhen they are where they are?"

Piniella wasn'tlooking for Nasty Boys Redux when he built this Cubs pen anyway. He simplylikes velocity, and in Wood, Marmol and Samardzija, who all throw in the 90s,he has it. They can be classified as nasty under an evolved definition of theword, in that they aggressively attack the strike zone and have filthy movementon their signature pitches. As Wood, 31, already an 11-year veteran, says ofSamardzija and the 25-year-old Marmol, "They can afford to make somemistakes because, with their stuff, they can still get away with them."

The 6'5",218-pound Samardzija, who catcher Geovany Soto says is "just getting by onpure ability at this point," has a bullish presence and has been thrivingmostly with an electric two-seam fastball. Meanwhile Marmol, who was signed outof the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old in 1999 and converted from a catcherin 2003, breaks off wicked sliders that, says Cards centerfielder (and formerpitcher) Rick Ankiel, "look exactly the same as his fastball coming out ofhis hand."

Wood, the goateedTexan, has reinvented himself as a closer after a dozen trips to the DL and anear retirement in '07. Not surprisingly, he has a cooler mound demeanor thanhis younger, more demonstrative colleagues. "Kerry's competitiveness,"says Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild, "is expressed moreinwardly"—but his talent is still manifested in heat that resembles what hethrew as a rookie, when he famously whiffed 20 batters in just his fifth majorleague start. Samardzija was 13 at the time. "Growing up, for as long as Ican remember being a baseball fan," he says, "I was watching Kerry Woodstrike dudes out at Wrigley."

MOST OFSamardzija's teammates—including second baseman Mark DeRosa, a formerquarterback at Penn who lockers next to the rookie—first saw him in his formerlife, with the Fighting Irish. In the public sporting consciousness the Shark,as he was known in South Bend, may always be thought of as a football playerfirst. Ironically, one of the seeds for his gridiron stardom was planted by hisbaseball coach at Notre Dame, Paul Mainieri, on a ride to Chicago in the summerof 2005. Mainieri and Charlie Weis, who had just been hired as football coach,were taking their sons to a Red Sox--Cubs game and began talking aboutSamardzija, who had already starred for two college seasons as a startingpitcher but had caught a total of 24 passes in his freshman and sophomore yearswhile playing for Ty Willingham.

Mainieri toldWeis, "If you give this kid a chance, I promise he'll make a very positiveimpact. I think he could catch 50 passes this fall." As it turned out,Mainieri was actually selling his ace short: As a junior Samardzija caught 77passes for 15 touchdowns and was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given tothe college game's top receiver.

The followingJune, at a time when most outsiders believed Samardzija's eventual destinationwould be the NFL, the Cubs took a flier on him with a fifth-round pick and gothim to play a summer divided between Rookie League and Class A ball. "Theone thing no one knew about Jeff Samardzija then," says Cubs generalmanager Jim Hendry, "was that he liked baseball as much as football."Mainieri had told Hendry as much, and Hendry had a long-standing reason totrust the Fighting Irish skipper. In one of his earliest coaching gigs, atMiami's Christopher Columbus High in 1981, Mainieri was an assistant on thebaseball staff with Samardzija's future agent, Mark Rodgers. The head coach atthe time was Hendry.

In 2006Samardzija caught 78 passes and 12 touchdowns for the Irish, who went to theSugar Bowl, where they were trampled by LSU. One of the attendees at theSuperdome was Hendry, who met with Samardzija a few days later at Gibson'sSteakhouse in Rosemont, Ill., to talk about his baseball future. Samardzijastill had options, as the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine were looming. Withindays, however, he chose to take the Cubs' offer, which included a $2.5 millionsigning bonus that would be forfeited if he returned to football.

Samardzija's27-year-old brother, Sammy, a former all-state high school baseball andfootball player who now runs Jeff's website (jeff-samardzija.com), had visitedhim in South Bend in December, toting a whiteboard on which he drew a line downthe middle, with FOOTBALL on one side and BASEBALL on the other. Carrying theday for the diamond were the "pros" Jeff listed under baseball, whichincluded the longevity factor, the lifestyle of playing every day rather thanenduring daily meetings and practices, and, at the end, location, location,location. "If you're a kid who played ball in Northwest Indiana," saysSam, "Wrigley Field is like Mecca."

On the pilgrimagefrom Touchdown Jesus to Baseball Mecca, though, it has been impossible forSamardzija to shed his football past. Cubs organist Gary Pressy plays The NotreDame Victory March when Samardzija takes the hill, although the pitcher sayshe'd prefer Hendrix. His number 83 football jersey showed up on the backs offans at every stop in the minors, where he was both a celeb and a strangestatistical phenomenon, actually getting better as he was promoted—from a 4.95ERA in Class A Daytona, to 3.41 in Double A Tennessee, to 3.13 in Iowa. Some ofthe early struggles were due to experimentation with new pitches, but more mayhave been due to the stage, which shrank by roughly 99.75% between 80,795-seatNotre Dame Stadium and the low minors.

"I like toget fired up when I pitch," says Samardzija, "and I think a crowd makesme concentrate. If a situation means a lot, I'm not as laissez-faire as I waswhen I was in front of 200 retired people [in Daytona] who were playingbaseball bingo. It's not that I didn't care then. I just knew there was abigger goal than going 10--0 in the Florida State League."

The goal ofhelping the Cubs end the majors' longest title drought is in front of him now,and the brighter the lights, the stronger he's pitched. Rothschild had aninkling, back in March, that this call-up could work. "You could see inspring training that he could fit into a bullpen quickly," he says ofSamardzija. "He had really good stuff. And he also had no fear."

There are noregrets now, either, about this career choice. Could two-a-days at NFL trainingcamp ever match summer days in the sun at Wrigley? Samardzija's commute is onethat will never get old, but it's all still so fresh here in August, as herolls past the outdoor souvenir stands that don't yet stock his jersey, rollspast the clueless scalpers on Clark who ask if he needs tickets (No, sir, thatwill not be necessary), rolls up toward the players' gate and into the park,where Sweet Lou just might throw the kid into the fire again. If he does, thekid will feel right at home.

"For as long as I can remember," Samardzijasays, "I was watching Kerry Wood STRIKE DUDES OUT at Wrigley."

NASTY

Jeff Samardzija
Hits 99 mph on the radar gun; with improved secondary pitches, could one daybecome the closer—or a frontline starter.

NASTIER

Kerry Wood
Still gets it into the mid-90s (59 K's, 49 2/3 IP); ability to keep ball inpark (one homer allowed) has been key for fly ball pitcher.

NASTIEST

Carlos Marmol
Fastball generally is in the low 90s, but with great movement. In 67 1/3innings he has walked 34, but allowed only 30—30!—hits.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Stephen Green'PEN AND SHUT CASE Samardzija forsook the NFL and followed the lure of Wrigley (or Mecca, as he calls it), where he flings high heat and brings a commanding presence. FOUR PHOTOSCHUCK SOLOMON (4); PHOTOS ALTERED BY SI IMAGING

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