JEFF KNOWS BASEBALL
Jeff Samardzija spent part of Tuesday afternoon doing his best Bo Jackson imitation. He was wearing football shoulder pads and holding a baseball bat and glove as a photographer guided him through various poses, trying to find the perfect one to appear on a poster Notre Dame will distribute next weekend. That's when Samardzija will pitch against Rutgers in an April 21 night baseball game before playing wide receiver in the April 22 Blue-Gold spring football game.
"I'm just in college doing it, whereas [Bo Jackson] did it on the next level," Samardzija said. "I'm just having fun -- you've got to take advantage of it while you can."
Don't get thrown off by Samardzija's humble understatement. In the last nine months, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound junior has put himself in position to join Jackson as a first-round pick in football and baseball.
After combining for 24 catches for 327 yards in his first two years at Notre Dame, Samardzija set school records with 77 receptions and 15 touchdowns in first-year coach Charlie Weis' wide-open offense, earning consensus All-America honors in a 2005 football season that ended with Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
His success secured Samardzija's spot on the depth chart, so Weis allowed him to skip some spring practices for the first time in his college career to concentrate on baseball. The extra time on the diamond has allowed Samardzija to increase his velocity, improve his secondary pitches and correct some of the little things his athleticism alone didn't overcome during his first two seasons in the Notre Dame weekend rotation.
Now, in addition to ESPN's NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper projecting Samardzija as the No. 1 wide receiver in the Class of 2007, baseball scouts see the right-hander as a potential first-rounder as well. That leaves Samardzija with a decision to make -- eventually.
"I'm an athlete playing baseball and football, which is the proper way to say it. I love both of them," said Samardzija, who hopes to get drafted in June and play baseball this summer before returning to Notre Dame for fall football practice in August.
"I'm not worrying about making a decision. I get asked every day, multiple times. It's tough because I want to give someone an answer, but I don't have an answer. This is the politically correct answer, but it's the truth. Many times I've tried to make myself decide, but I can't do it."
Notre Dame baseball coach Paul Manieri doesn't doubt Samardzija's resolve, commitment or work ethic. The coach never considered not getting the right-hander back for this season, even while he watched No. 83 start the football season with a TD catch in eight straight games.
"I've had four or five organizations' scouting directors tell me, if football was not in the equation, this kid is a first-round pick in baseball," Manieri said. "That's face-to-face conversations. This kid is serious about being the best baseball player he can become. Just because he's a consensus All-American in football doesn't mean he's not going to try to be the best baseball player he can become."
Samardzija started the first game of Thursday's doubleheader against St. John's, in what was a battle of the top two teams in the Big East. Notre Dame (26-8, 10-1) has now won 16 straight games. Earlier in the season, St. John's (22-10, 8-3) carved out a 13-game win streak.
Samardzija went 13-4, with a 3.47 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 143 innings as Notre Dame's Sunday starter his first two seasons, and though his 4-1, 4.04 record with 23 strikeouts in 42 innings aren't more impressive at face value, he's developed into a better pitcher.
He's a fresher pitcher, for sure, thanks to missing nine of 15 spring football practices. Samardzija, whose first home start of 2006 drew an Eck Stadium record crowd of 3,028, has touched 96 mph in every outing this season, and pitches at 92-93 mph -- which was about his peak velocity in previous seasons. With no fall practice to build upon, Samardzija is just getting the feel of his breaking ball and change-up and showed progress by tying a career-high eight strikeouts against Pittsburgh two weeks ago.
"It's been amazing, my legs are there every weekend," Samardzija said. "Last year, I'd practice [football] three or four times per week and pitching on Saturday or Sunday, my mechanics were off. Lots of bad habits were coming in those three or four weeks of spring football. This gives me more time to work on little things like mechanics, off-speed pitches and just getting in front of a mirror and doing dry stuff."
Three weeks ago, Notre Dame pitching coach Terry Rooney helped Samardzija change his breaking ball grip. He always had thrown a curveball from his three-quarters arm slot, but both pitcher and coach thought they could find more success by switching to a slider. The lesson lasted about 20 minutes, and Samardzija used the next three or four days of practice to experiment with the new pitch before unleashing it in a game. The hard-biting low-80s slider quickly became his second-best offering. Samardzija has recorded 18 strikeouts in his last 20 innings.
That's the kind of daily maintenance most college coaches and players take for granted during the season, but it was one of the first experiences of that kind for Samardzija.
"Before it was kind of on-the-go," Rooney said. "Now what we're able to do is maintain his strengths and improve on his weaknesses, where before we were just hoping to maintain his strengths and mechanics.
"The first two years, confidence and athleticism won him games, now he's developing as a pitcher. His secondary pitches are starting to come. Now he's the whole package."
Around the nation
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