Jeff Samardzija content he chose baseball over football

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In the dead of winter, Jeff Samardzija still feels the itch.

Football will be on TV, and the former All-American receiver-turned-major league pitcher gets nostalgic for the sport.

“When you’re sitting around in January and you haven’t competed professionally in three or four months, that’s when it really wears on you,” Samardzija said with a smile. “You’re chomping at the bit to get going for spring training, and there’s really nowhere to take that anxiety and that energy.”

Baseball wound up the career path of choice for the A’s right-hander, but football will always be in Samardzija’s blood.

What options that lay before him seven years ago as a senior at Notre Dame. Coming off a record-setting collegiate career, there was speculation that the 6-foot-5 Samardzija might be a first-round NFL draft pick.

He wound up signing a five-year contract with the Chicago Cubs, beginning a road that led to his first All-Star selection this season after his trade to Oakland.

In a time when athletes increasingly are picking one sport to specialize in at a young age, it seems fewer and fewer will even be presented the choice that Samardzija had.

Growing up in Indiana, the challenge was simply narrowing down all of the athletic activities that he and his older brother Sam got involved in.

“He was right around four-and-a-half years younger,” Sam Samardzija said. “He could hang out with me and my buddies, but I think he learned early on that if he cried, he would have got his butt kicked maybe by me, or he would have had to answer to my Dad.”

Soccer, baseball, football, basketball, track …. Jeff even tried wrestling for a couple years, and though he admits he wasn’t crazy about the sport, he placed second in a state tournament.

By the time he was attending Valparaiso High School, he had become not only an all-state center fielder but a star receiver.

It led to a football scholarship to Notre Dame. Paul Mainieri, then the head baseball coach at Notre Dame, had never heard of Samardzija until he was recruited by then-Irish football coach Ty Willingham.

“I picked up a periodical that covered Notre Dame football, and it was an article about a receiver from Valparaiso, and all he was talking about was how he wanted to play baseball at Notre Dame,” Mainieri recalled. “So I ran down to Ty Willingham and said ‘Ty, who is this kid that you’re volunteering spots to on my ball club?’”

Willingham agreed to let Samardzija moonlight in baseball, but the compromise was he couldn’t play the outfield, where it was thought he’d be too vulnerable to injury. So Samardzija joined the Notre Dame pitching staff.

Mainieri knew he had someone special when he started Samardzija against Michigan as a freshman. Samardzija walked the bases loaded on 12 straight pitches, then calmed his nerves and struck out the next two batters to escape the jam.

Though Samardzija had trouble working his way up the football depth chart in his first two seasons, Mainieri had designs on Samardzija being one of his top starting pitchers as a sophomore. Before baseball season began that year, Willingham was fired as Notre Dame’s football coach and Charlie Weis replaced him.

“I started him that first game of the year if for no other reason than if Charlie Weis showed up on campus, it was going to be hard as possible to take him off baseball,” Mainieri said.

In Weis’ offense, Samardzija developed into an All-American receiver over his final two years, and by the end of his senior season in 2006, he held Notre Dame career records for catches (179), receiving yards (2,593) and receiving touchdowns (27).

As it came time to make a choice between football and baseball professionally, it was no surprise that Samardzija turned to his older brother for advice. Sam had walked away from a baseball scholarship at Indiana to help look after Jeff when their mother, Debora, died of a rare acute respiratory disease when Jeff was in high school.

Now, as Jeff faced a huge decision regarding his future, Sam and his wife drove to South Bend to talk it over.

“We brought out a dry erase board, and we wrote ‘football’ and ‘baseball’, and drew a line down the middle and listed pros and cons,” said Sam, whose involvement in his brother’s career steered him to become a sports agent.

Both Sam Samardzija and Mainieri say they know that at least one NFL team had Jeff targeted for the first round. Ultimately, Jeff decided his ceiling was higher in baseball. Then-Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, a close friend of Mainieri’s, had drafted Samardzija in the fifth round in 2006, between his junior and senior seasons of football.

With the Cubs still owning his rights, they signed him to a five-year $10 million contract in January 2007.

Samardzija broke into the majors in 2008 as a reliever and didn’t make the full-time conversion to starting until 2012. Gifted with a fastball that hits the high 90’s, he’s worked hard to improve command of his other pitches. The A’s will have him under team control next season before he hits free agency, so if Oakland doesn’t re-sign Jon Lester as is widely assumed, Samardzija will remain an anchor of the rotation in 2015.

Samardzija, 29, knows all about the dual-sport careers of Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan. He also knows they were the exception to the rule when it came to those attempting to succeed in two sports.

“I was committed to myself that if I wanted to be the best at something, I’d have to commit full-time to one,” Samardzija said. “A lot of those careers, they didn’t really turn out the way guys wanted them to. I always wondered, if those guys did pick one, how good would they have been?”

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 12, Rockies 6: Cody Bellinger hit two homers and drove in four and now he’s slugging a ridiculous .679. He also made news over the weekend by saying that he did not know who Jerry Seinfeld was. I’ll have some more thoughts on that later this morning. In other news, Colorado blew an early 5-0 lead and a later 6-4 lead and the Dodgers piled it on late with three in the seventh and five in the eighth. Oh, and closer Kenley Jansen doubled, driving in a run. It was only his eighth plate appearance in his career. Of course, dude used to be a catcher, so he knows which end of the bat is which.

Twins 4, Indians 0: Last weekend the Indians swept the Twins in Minnesota and took over first place in the AL Central. This weekend the Twins sweep the Indians in Cleveland and took over first place in the AL Central. Which means that you can probably ignore that stuff I said about last week being a turning point or order being restored or whatever the hell else I said. Probably a good policy regardless. Ervin Santana tossed six shutout innings and Jason Castro drove in three of the four runs. The fourth came via an Eddie Rosario homer.

Rangers 7, Yankees 6: It was Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, and Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry and Sparky Lyle were all on hand. Too bad they didn’t stick around because the Yankees might’ve been better off with them on the bump for the game that counted. Texas scored six runs off of Michael Pineda in the first two innings and seven over four, thanks in parts to homers by Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo and Drew Robinson. The Yankees made it close, adding four in the fifth and two in the seventh, but they’d fall one short. Next time, give it to Whitey.

Blue Jays 8, Royals 2:  Jose Bautista homered and drove in four. Francisco Liriano allowed two runs on six hits while pitching into the seventh to pick up his 100th career victory. In other news, Jays closer Roberto Osuna struck out three in a scoreless ninth inning a day after saying he was dealing with anxiety issues. Everyone is fighting a battle you don’t know anything about. Good to see Osuna having a positive day as he fights his.

Marlins 4, Cubs 2: Addison Russell left with a pain in his shoulder and the Cubs lost a game they probably should’ve won. Three of Miami’s four runs were unearned following a first inning error by Russell and the Cubs managed to turn eight hits and seven walks into only two runs. A Giancarlo Stanton homer in the seventh gave the fish some insurance. Ichiro started in center field, by the way, becoming the oldest man to ever start a game at the 8. He was 43 years, 246 days old yesterday. Rickey Henderson had the previous record for a center field start, doing so on the day he was 43 years and 211 days old back in the 2002 season with the Red Sox.

Orioles 8, Rays 5: It was tied at five heading into the ninth when Caleb Joseph and Seth Smith reached base in front of Joey Rickard‘s tiebreaking double which scored Joseph. Smith came in to score when Jonathan Schoop was hit by a pitch. Then Rickard scored on an Adam Jones sac fly. Joseph, Trey Mancini and Schoop all homered for the Orioles.

Angels 4, Red Sox 2: A week ago Parker Bridwell and Doug Fister were in the same dugout for the Salt Lake City Bees. Yesterday they faced each other following Bridwell’s callup and Fister’s release and signing by the Sox. Bridwell got the better of Fister, allowing two runs while pitching into the seventh. Mitch Moreland and Jackie Bradley Jr. homered for the Sox in a losing cause.

Brewers 7, Braves 0: Zach Davies tossed seven shutout innings, but he didn’t need to be that good given what his teammates did to Julio Teheran. Keon Broxton hit a solo shot and drove in two with a single. Travis Shaw hit a two-run shot to kick off the scoring. The Brewers snap the Braves four-game winning streak and salvage one in the three-game series.

Reds 6, Nationals 2: The Reds got pummeled by the Nats on Saturday night but they came out swinging on Sunday, putting up five runs in the first. Scooter Gennett had an RBI single in the first and hit homered in the second. Scott Feldman allowed two runs over seven innings.

Athletics 5, White Sox 3: There were rumors last week that some contender might trade for Sony Gray and make him a reliever. Seems fine as a starter to me: he pitched four-hit ball over seven innings. Oakland trailed until the eighth but took the lead on Khris Davis and Yonder Alonso RBI singles. They padded the lead in the ninth with homers from Adam Rosales and Matt Joyce.

Mets 8, Giants 2: Rene Rivera hit two homers. Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson each went deep once. Slackers. Or maybe Bruce was just more efficient because he drove in the same number of runs Rivera did — three — with one fewer dinger. Baseball: it’s full of mysteries. Anyway, the Mets sweep the Giants, who have lost five in a row and 12 of 13.

Astros 8, Mariners 2George Springer, Yuli Gurriel and Evan Gattis all went deep as the Astros finish up a 6-1 road trip. Emergency starter Francis Martes had a rough go of it, but four relievers combined to shut out the Mariners on three hits for seven innings. These guys have the best record in the game and, like, 80% of their rotation is hurt. Pretty scary team.

Diamondbacks 2, Phillies 1Daniel Descalso hit a walkoff single, scoring Paul Goldschmidt in the 11th. Goldschmidt knocked in the snakes’ other run earlier in the game. Arizona has won 11 of 13

Tigers 7, Padres 5Mikie Mahtook drove in three runs via an RBI triple in the fourth and a tiebreaking two-run single in the ninth to help the Tigers end their eight game losing streak. The Padres blew 3-0 and 5-3 leads.

Cardinals 8, Pirates 4: Down 4-2 in the sixth, a Randal Grichuk homer and a Jed Gyorko RBI double tied things up and then a four-run seventh inning put things away. Four Cardinal relievers combining to allow only one hit over three scoreless innings helped put it away too.

Giancarlo Stanton will defend his Home Run Derby title

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The Marlins announced on Sunday that outfielder Giancarlo Stanton will defend his Home Run Derby title when the city of Miami host’s the All-Star Game festivities next month.

Stanton, 27, defeated Todd Frazier in the finals of last year’s Home Run Derby at Petco Park, hitting 20 home runs to Frazier’s 13. Stanton hit a total of 61 home runs in the Derby. This will be the third Home Run Derby in which Stanton has participated.

Stanton also went 1-for-3 with a solo home run to help the Marlins defeat the Cubs 4-2 on Sunday. He’s now batting .274/.357/.551 with 20 home runs and 49 RBI in 311 plate appearances.