SCOTTSDALE — On a scorching March day, with the seats at Scottsdale Stadium not totally full and the opposing lineup lacking star power, Jeff Samardzija tried to ratchet up the intensity. He had loaded the bases with a pair of one-out free passes to the Angels and he was intent on limiting the damage.
The Cactus League opener tends to be about “getting your work in,” but Samardzija treated his second inning like the seventh frame of a September game at AT&T Park. He buckled down and got a sac fly to right and then a slow inning-ending grounder to short. Why the intensity on Day 1?
“That’s what’s expected of you here,” Samardzija said. “When you’re in an organization like this, there’s no going through the motions. I learned pretty quick that when you’re here, you’re here for a reason. It’s not to do busy work. You’re here to get better, and I think the best way to do that is to constantly have your head working.”
That intensity was part of the draw for the Giants. They didn’t see a pitcher who had a 4.96 ERA last season. They saw a 6-foot-5 bag of potential, a pitcher with a mindset that could fit right in with Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and the rest.
“Playing against him, I admired his competitive nature,” Posey said Wednesday. “You can tell that certain guys might be just a tick above the rest.”
The Giants gave Samardzija five years and $90 million, hopeful that he would finally put it all together for the long haul. There are many reasons why the front office is confident: Samardzija is moving to a pitcher-friendly ballpark and will work under Dave Righetti, and after years of trade rumors that he admitted weighed on him in previous stops, Samardzija is finally locked into a long-term home. Then there’s the Posey Effect, and it’s no small thing. Posey is one of the game’s best pitch-framers per advanced metrics, and few if any current backstops put together a better game plan than No. 28. Samardzija is ready to turn it all over to his new MVP catcher.
“He’s so cerebral back there that it kind of takes a load off your shoulders and allows you to just really concentrate on executing the pitch,” Samardzija said. “He’s caught in that park and caught in that league. I’m going to lean pretty heavily on him on how to get some guys out. I haven’t faced the Dodgers in a few years and the Rockies probably longer than that, and so on and so forth. I’m going to rely on him.”
Posey is aggressive behind the plate, intent on getting a pitcher to establish his fastball and go after hitters. That can be a tough game plan for some to follow — and there’s a common thread running through pitchers who have preferred backups like Hector Sanchez — but Samardzija seems ready-made for it. His fastball averaged 94 mph last season and touched 97, and Posey said that on Wednesday it felt like “it was getting on me quick.”
“He can throw a four-seamer that rides through the zone, and he has some heavy sink as well,” Posey said.
That sink may be one of the keys to Samardzija’s success this year. He noticeably cut down the use of his two-seamer last season, but he said he wants to get back to attacking the zone with heaters.
In his first start for the Giants, Samardzija had a quick 10-pitch first inning against the Angels, throwing seven strikes and getting two easy outs on grounders to the right side. After a two-out single, C.J. Cron lined out softly to second baseman Joe Panik. The second inning was rougher, as Samardzija gave up a leadoff double to Carlos Perez and then walked a pair to load the bases. Rafael Ortega, the nine-hitter, flied out to right and brought a run home. In all, Samardzija threw 32 pitches, 19 for strikes.
Posey will likely catch Samardzija throughout the spring. The hard work began in earnest last month when the two had their first bullpen session together. Afterward, Posey and Samardzija stood in front of a mound for about five minutes and went over preferences. The relationship is one that the Giants hope will get Samardzija back to All-Star form. So far, Samardzija has soaked in as much as he can.
“Just in the conversations we’ve had, he’s eager to improve in any way possible,” Posey said. “I’m not saying I have the right answers, but I’m excited about working through things. Half the battle is willingness. He’s been around a while, but he still has that desire to elevate his game.”