When most sports fans talk about Jeff Samardzija, they mention the agile receiver who used to catch Brady Quinn's touchdown passes at Notre Dame. Then, as an afterthought: "Oh, and isn't he trying to pitch for the Chicago Cubs?"
As much as he loves a good football conversation, Samardzija wants this to be the year people are talking baseball when he is the subject.
He spent a month in the Mexican League last fall working on the breaking pitch he needs to be an effective big leaguer, and the tall right-hander snapped off several sharp "slurves" Saturday during batting practice.
"He used to look like a football player who was trying to pitch," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "Now he looks like a pitcher who just so happened to play football in college. He's come a long way."
The Cubs have two openings in their rotation, and they'd like to get a return on the $10 million investment they made when they signed Samardzija three years ago.
He teased the team with his potential when he was called up during the 2008 pennant race, working 13 scoreless appearances that August before hitters began sitting on his fastball. Samardzija was smacked around in September, failed to make the club last spring and had a 7.53 ERA during three short big league stints in 2009.
"The stubborn side of me ... expected it to happen overnight," Samardzija said. "The realistic side of me kind of knew it was going to take a little bit. I needed to be able to command another pitch. The curve has come along well."
Rothschild said Samardzija's new pitch is more of a slider-curve combination.
"It's a tight, hard breaking ball — a real quality pitch," the coach said. "Jeff should be able to repeat his delivery and have success, because he has the agility and balance that goes with being a great athlete."
Samardzija caught 155 passes for 2,266 yards and 27 touchdowns in his last two seasons at Notre Dame. Rated a top-20 baseball prospect, he wasn't drafted until the fifth round because many teams thought he would play in the NFL.
The football factor gave him bargaining power with the Cubs. His five-year contract — which includes a no-trade clause and two option years that could bring him another $6.5 million — was unprecedented for such a low draft choice.
Like most Notre Dame followers, Samardzija isn't thrilled about what happened to the Fighting Irish since he, Quinn and other standouts departed. Records of 3-9, 7-6 and 6-6 followed, coach Charlie Weis was fired and the program again is in rebuilding mode.
"I was a Weis fan but ... college football is becoming more of a professional sport every year. You've got to win or else," Samardzija said.
"I heard (new coach Brian Kelly) is a charismatic guy and a great recruiter, which is the most important aspect of college football," he said. "It's not so much X's and O's. If you've got a guy that can run down the field and catch it over the other guy, that's really all you need."
These days, Samardzija is hoping to make a different kind of grab in a completely different game.
"There are only a handful of starting rotation spots open in the majors," he said. "When you get the opportunity to snag one, you'd better not miss."
NOTES: Manager Lou Piniella said Saturday that LHP Ted Lilly will miss "probably the first month of the season" after a nearly weeklong virus delayed his comeback from shoulder and knee injuries. The team had been talking about a mid-April return.
RHP Angel Guzman, shut down for a few days after experiencing shoulder soreness, is expected to resume throwing Sunday.