OAKLAND – The more pressure-packed the games get, the more fun Jeff Samardzija seems to be having.
The day he arrived with the A’s via trade from the Chicago Cubs, the right-hander talked of his excitement about joining a postseason contender. It’s reflected in everything he does on the mound.
He gestures at infielders after a great play. He barks out loud if he doesn’t get a strike call – perhaps at the umpire, perhaps to himself. It’s a cliché to say that major leaguers are getting paid to play a kid’s game, but Samardzija appears fully invested in that idea.
“It’s a new situation for me, and it’s something I’ve been asking for for a long time,” Samardzija said of pennant-race baseball. “It means a lot to me. I don’t take anything for granted. … So every chance you get to grab that ball and you go out there and take the mound, it means something. If you can get your guys to feel that same way about you, then you’re doing your job.”
He wasn’t the full story in the A’s 8-4 victory over the Los Angeles Angels on Monday. Starving for runs for weeks now, Oakland took advantage of four first-inning walks and scored six runs off Angels starter C.J. Wilson, who didn’t make it out of the first. That’s 16 runs in two days for the A’s, who got big bases-loaded hits Monday from Geovany Soto and Stephen Vogt.
They’ve now won three out of four, they lead Kansas City by one game for the AL’s top wild card spot, and their magic number to clinch one of the two wild card berths is four.
If they were to get in the wild card game and eventually advance to the AL Division Series, Samardzija’s mentality seems perfectly suited for the postseason. The former All-America wide receiver seems to relish the high stakes and relish competition in general.
“He’s been terrific, and really emotional,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “You get that kind of lift when you play behind him, knowing that he’s so into it.”
Melvin cited Samardzija’s emotion. He also praised the “energetic” play of Soto both offensively and behind the plate. Those have got to be positive signs for a manager whose team, frankly, hasn’t always played as if its collective head is in the ballgame lately.
Samardzija, handed a 6-1 lead after one inning, surrendered just one unearned run and five hits over seven innings. He lowered his ERA to 1.40 over his last six starts.
Soto caught Samardzija when both were with the Cubs from 2010-2012. Since Soto was acquired from the A’s in August, he’s found Samardzija to be a more polished pitcher now.
“To see him mature the way he has in a starter's role and put everything together is great to see,” Soto said. “I feel like earlier he was trying to go all-out from the first inning. He wasn't setting people up. You kind of save your bullets for when you need them. He's learning how to pitch. He's doing a great job.”
A’s infielder Andy Parrino wears a No. 83 Notre Dame jersey around the clubhouse before every game that Samardzija pitches, a tip of the hat to Samardzija’s Fighting Irish football career. It’s a half-joking gesture, but it also speaks to Samardzija’s appeal within the clubhouse.
Teammates seem drawn to the way he approaches things. And apparently he’s been labeled with the right nickname.
“He's a shark,” Soto said. “He's coming at you. He's coming for some blood.”