Samarzija’s football toughness showing on baseball diamond

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For Notre Dame football fans, there will always be a bit of a “what if” with Jeff Samardzija. The former All-American wide receiver, who exploded onto the scene when Charlie Weis arrived in South Bend, scored a ridiculous 27 touchdown passes in his final two years in South Bend, exactly 27 more than he did in his first two seasons.

Samardzija’s final two seasons were filled with highlight reel catches, an explosive player who was faster than you thought, a dangerous combination for a pure athlete that could catch anything thrown his way. Samardzija also played with an edge, as confident of a player as we’ve seen put on the blue and gold in recent memory.

Of course, Samardzija wasn’t just impressive on the football field. He dazzled scouts on the baseball diamond as well, where he’s size and athleticism coupled with a mid-to-high 90s fastball. Even though he was clearly a work in progress, Samardzija was good enough for the Chicago Cubs to take a flier on him, with then Cubs general manager Jim Hendry getting Samardzija to walk away from football for a five-year, ten million dollar contract, an obscene amount of money for a fifth round draft pick.

Slowly but surely, the Cubs faith in Samardzija has paid off. After starting his career in the bullpen, Samardzija has transitioned to the starting rotation, and even though he’s only won a single start in his first eight outings, he’s got the makings of one of the elite starting pitchers in the National League.

And just as impressive, he’s still showing the toughness that made him beloved on the football field on the pitching mound. ESPN’s Jim Caple chronicled Samardzija’s most impressive outing, where he battled through a bloodied index finger to gut out a much-needed victory.

Which is why a mere bloody finger didn’t stop Jeff Samardzija two weeks ago. He’s a baseball player, yes — a pitcher for the Cubs. But he’s also a former wide receiver at Notre Dame. Facing the Reds in Cincinnati, the 28-year-old Cubs starter fielded a comebacker off the tip of his right index finger, which ripped a cut under the fingernail. He had to wipe the blood off on his uniform so frequently the rest of the game that he went through two pairs of pants and two shirts.

“It wouldn’t close up because it was under the nail,” Samardzija says. “They couldn’t suture it. They couldn’t close it. All we could do is mask the bleeding. It probably stopped later that night or the next day. It was pretty nasty. … Yeah, it hurt like a bitch.”

But what the heck. Samardzija is an ex-football player. He not only kept pitching, he also pitched well — six innings, one run and eight strikeouts against one of baseball’s best teams. And remember, this was a key finger on his pitching hand, one that came in contact with the ball on every single painful pitch. Let’s see Aaron Rodgers throw 100 tight spirals with that condition.

“After the inning was over, he was running back into the dugout,” Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio says. “They’re doing everything they can to stop the bleeding. Powder. Pickle juice. Trying to dry it up with super glue. Every trick you could possibly do to stop the bleeding. And he just kept pitching.”

Bosio called it one of the most impressive performances he’s seen as a coach or a player. “That’s his heart, that’s his soul, that’s his fire. That’s Jeff Samardzija.”

Watching Samardzija come into his own on the pitching mound shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. With raw stuff as good as his, it’s only a matter of time before his talents emerge. And as a six-foot-five, 225-pound athlete will a head covered with long, overgrown hair, the personality that was often on display on Satudays now provides another piece of hope for the lovable Chicago Cubs.