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Former Notre Dame receiver Jeff Samardzija focuses on pitching, ignores NFL draft, as Cubs prospect
Jeff Samardzija
Jeff Samardzija, a former Notre Dame wide receiver who's now a Chicago Cubs minor league pitching prospect, pitched on Sunday instead of watching the NFL draft.

By Chuck King

JUPITER, Fla. – Former Notre Dame wide receiver Jeff Samardzija was more concerned about the no-decision he received Sunday as a minor league pitcher for the Chicago Cubs than the life-changing decision he made in January that essentially removed him from the weekend’s NFL draft.

Samardzija, Notre Dame’s single-season record holder for receiving yards and touchdowns, chose a career in baseball over football when he signed a five-year contract that reportedly could be worth more than $16 million.

Instead of waiting to here his name called in New York on Sunday, Samardzija took the mound at Roger Dean Stadium the Daytona Cubs’ starting pitcher in their Florida State League game against Palm Beach.

“There’s something about the game that’s real special to me – something I just couldn’t give up,” Samardzija said. “You’ve got to go with what you want to do. You can’t let other people determine what your decisions are.”

Despite his football background, the Cubs minor league prospect wasn’t glued to draft coverage the way some of his teammates were.

Samardzija noticed his former quarterback Brady Quinn’s slide and waited until after Cleveland chose Quinn with the 22nd pick to place a congratulatory phone call.

“A couple of my buddies got drafted,” Samardzija said. “It’s been cool to watch them go. I congratulate them. I wish them all the best, but it’s whatever. I’m not really all caught up in it.”

Even if Samardzija wasn’t paying much attention to the draft, his football experience enhanced draft weekend for his teammates.

“It was pretty interesting just to hear his thoughts about the guys he played against and played with,” Daytona pitcher Scott Taylor said.

Whether some NFL team would take a chance on drafting the 6-foot-6 former Notre Dame wide receiver became popular clubhouse fodder.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on it,” said Daytona manager Jody Davis following the Cubs 5-3 loss to Palm Beach, which ended while the draft was still in the sixth round. “We think somebody may pick him in the late rounds just for the rights to him. Jeff seems pretty committed to baseball and seems happy with what he’s doing.”

Scouts: Cubs prospect Samardzija should be a closer

On Sunday Samardzija, currently 0-1 with a 2.45 ERA, pitched like a prospect who split time between sports. His fastball was there, reaching 95 mph. However, he struggled with his off-speed pitches, allowing 10 hits and two earned runs in 5.1 innings.

Performances like this have scouts from other major league organizations suggesting that Samardzija might eventually be better suited to the closer’s role. Samardzija’s lack of secondary pitchers, scouts reason, will be less of a liability if hitters have fewer chances to face him.

“We’ll have to see,” Davis said. “It’s really the first full year he’s pitched. We’re just going to give him a bunch of innings and see how he progresses. He’s got a great arm. We’re going to be working on the little things.”

Samardzija says he often has trouble getting the feel for his off-speed pitches early in games, only to have them come around in the middle innings. Off-speed pitches are usually the last ones to come to a power pitcher.

Splitting time between football and baseball shortened the amount of time Samardzija could dedicate to mastering a variety of pitches. He expects to develop his secondary pitches quickly now that he’s dedicated to baseball and shrugs off the idea of ending up in the pen.

“I think I’m a starter,” Samardzija said. “I think I always will be. I think I can go late in the innings. There’s really no depth to that (evaluation). It’s just hearsay.”

Samardzija pleases Notre Dame crowd

That Samardzija did not factor in the decision didn’t matter to the throng of fans, both young and old, who waited outside the visitors’ clubhouse for autographs and pictures.

After signing a few baseballs and a replica of his Notre Dame football jersey, Samardzija boarded the bus for the short ride back to the motel.

Jeff Samardzija signs autographs
Jeff Samardzija autographs a replica of his former Notre Dame football jersey after pitching for Daytona, a Chicago Cubs minor league team, on the final day of the NFL draft.

“He handles it well,” Taylor said. “He signs a lot – a lot more than you’d think he would. There’re so many people who try to get him to sign something and sell it.”

Samardzija has made is decision. He’s a baseball player.

The decision was easy for Samardzija, a lifelong Cubs fan. That doesn’t seem to make the decision any easier for football fans to understand, especially this time of year.

“People just can’t really grip the fact that someone would play baseball instead of football,” Samardzija said. “It’s pretty funny, but whatever. They’ll come around, eventually.”

Check out my blog for more on Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs prospects and minor league baseball.

 

 

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