Samardzija and the splitter — like a ‘cheating girlfriend’

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — He’s been around so long, it’s hard to remember Jeff Samardzija was on the Athletics — or Cubs. Or that he played tight end at Notre Dame.

In this year of, what, rebuilding, remodeling for the Giants, of attempting to regain the past by reaching for the future, he remains at 35 an old guy who thinks — and throws — young.

There may be no Cy Young Awards on his resume, but there are a ton of innings and dozens of words of praise by those for whom Samardzija did what was expected and appreciated: pitch long and usually pitch well.

He’s old school, and at age 35 already impressing his new manager, Gabe Kapler, who along with the coaching staff has persuaded Samardzija to resuscitate one of his aging entities, the split-finger fastball, or in short the splitter.

Samardzija describes his relationship with the splitter as that with a cheating girlfriend — obviously from long ago, since he’s now married and the father of two.

And if he’s not married to the splitter, he does romance it now and then, as he did on Wednesday.

The man best known by his nickname, Shark, allowed no runs, no hits and one walk in the two innings he pitched in a Cactus League game against Milwaukee that ended in a 3-3 tie after the Brewers scored three runs in the top of the ninth.

“I thought the Shark did great,” said Kapler. “He’s really bought into truly utilizing the splitter more. He was poised as he always has been. He brought intensity to his first outing.”

As he does to every outing. The work ethic comes from a grandfather who immigrated to Indiana from Serbia — not the rural, under-the-elms Indiana, but the industrial area around Evansville.

There was a rumor, more an inside joke, that Samardzija would try out for the new spring football league, the XFL.

“I got a great alias for the Shark,” said Andy Baggarly of The Athletic, alluding to Madison Bumgarner using an assumed name as a cattle roper. “Sam Arg.”

But there’s no gridiron for the Shark. No alias either. Just a determination to pitch at least 200 innings, as he has done three times in his career,

An injury reduced the figure to 44 innings in 2018, but last year he was back to 181. “Thirty-three starts, six innings a start,” Samardzija said, matter of factly, “and there’s your 200. It doesn’t sound so overwhelming this way.”

Neither does employing the splitter, which was wildly popular 30 years ago, advocated by then-Giants manager Roger (Hum-baby) Craig. Basically, the ball is held with a loose grip so that, no matter how hard the pitcher seems to be throwing, there’s a reduction in speed. What would appear to be a fastball is something else.

“I didn’t have a curve,” said Samardzija, “so I used the splitter. But I stopped, because over the years you change your grip. But I started using it again, and it worked.”

This spring is different for the Shark, playing for new leadership, yet to him it’s still very much the same, getting himself in shape and prepared to go six innings or more early in the season, which he wasn’t in 2019.

“The new rule, that a reliever must pitch to three batters,” said Samardzija, “no one knows the effect, so as a starter the longer I can go the better help it will be.”

The Shark will be a free agent after the season. He may be a member of the Yankees before that, if a rumor is true that New York would appreciate a pitcher with his reputation as a workhorse.

“All I can do,” he said, “is try to pitch well and help the team I’m with try to win pennant.”

Not much more, is there?

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