Jeff Samardzija Reaps the Benefits in First Start at AT&T Park

Mar 31, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija (29) throws the ball against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 31, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija (29) throws the ball against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports /

New San Francisco Giants’ starter Jeff Samardzija debuted in his new abode, and reaped the benefits of being away from the Arizona air.

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The San Francisco Giants are finally out of the small parks, the sweltering heat, the thin air, and the concrete-like infields that comprise the Cactus League. After watching pitcher after pitcher falter in the hitter’s havens around Arizona, getting back to the cool air and huge park in San Francisco was like a breath of fresh air, both figuratively and literally. New Giant Jeff Samardzija was the first pitcher to toe the rubber at AT&T Park this season, and even though it’s still Spring Training, he reaped the benefits of working in a pitcher’s park in his first start at a new home.

Samardzija struggled early in the Spring, surrendering 18 runs in 19 innings over his first five starts, but settled in during his final start in Arizona against the team that drafted him back in 2006, the Chicago Cubs. Over six innings, he allowed two runs on five hits while striking out four and walking none. Thursday showed that Samardzija can turn it up even another notch.

The first batter of the game stung Samardzija, as Oakland Athletics’ leadoff man Billy Burns crushed a ball off the wall in right field, and sped around the basepaths for a triple with no one out. Even that could be seen as a welcome sight for Giants’ fans, as Burns’ ball would have easily cleared the wall in Scottsdale Stadium, the Giants’ Spring Training home.

Samardzija was unfazed by the need to enter the stretch quickly. The next batter, Chris Coghlan, popped out harmlessly to Giants’ third baseman Matt Duffy. Josh Reddick followed by grounding out to first baseman Brandon Belt, who was playing on the cut of the grass to prevent the run from scoring. Danny Valencia ended the inning by skying a ball to fairly deep right field that found its way into Hunter Pence‘s glove.

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Those three hitters were the first in a string of 15 consecutive that Samardzija set down without a blip. Within those 15, Samardzija struck out five, including setting down four out of five batters on strikes between the third and fourth innings, as he used all of his pitches to coax outs from the opposition. All of his strikeouts came on swing-and-misses, as the movement on his pitches was exponentially better than it had been throughout the Spring, another thing that can be contributed to no longer working in the heavier Arizona air. One of the most common complaints from pitchers in the Cactus League is that their pitches don’t break the way they are supposed to. That’s a problem Samardzija should not have when he takes the mound in San Francisco.

Of course, Samardzija needed a little help from his friends to get through his outing unscathed. His left fielder, Angel Pagan, made a sterling play in the first half of the third inning, coming in and going into a slide to snag a ball just before it landed on the grass to rob A’s first baseman Yonder Alonso of a base hit.

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Pagan has looked very good in left field this Spring, playing a position he hadn’t held since 2010 when he was still a member of the New York Mets. All around, Pagan looks as good as he has in years, showing off good speed on the basepaths and solid range in the outfield. His knees seem to be as healthy as they can be, which is just another reason for optimism as the beginning of a new season closes in.

Samardzija finished his final warm-up start after five sparkling innings, and threw 50 strikes among his 74 total pitches. His average pitches per inning was just above pitching coach Dave Righetti‘s preferred total of 14 per inning, but was right around the more universally-accepted 15 per inning.

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Samardzija is slated to pitch out of the third slot in the rotation, and will take the ball on Wednesday, when the Giants wrap up their inaugural series with the Milwaukee Brewers. In an almost cruel twist of fate, Samardzija will make his first regular season start with the Giants in another ballpark that isn’t always kind to pitchers, Milwaukee’s Miller Park.