ORACLE PARK — Over his first 10 seasons in the Major Leagues, Jeff Samardzija never spent a single day on the disabled list. He threw at least 200 innings in five straight seasons.
Last season, Samardzija threw fewer innings (44 2/3) than he had since 2010, when he pitched in just seven games and started three. Shoulder injuries that cost him the first three weeks of the season, plus a too-quick return, sapped Samardzija of his velocity and his effectiveness. His hope was to put those difficulties in his rearview mirror with a strong 2019.
In Tuesday’s Bay Bridge Series finale against the Oakland Athletics — the final tuneup before the regular season — Samardzija was battered, leaving after just 3 2/3 innings and 66 pitches, allowing six hits (three for extra-base hits) and four earned runs in a rain-shortened 4-2 loss. With the Giants set to release their rotation soon, Samardzija looked more like his 2018 self than the pitcher who had a 3.99 ERA and 1,218 strikeouts in 1,321 1/3 innings between 2011 and 2017, but that didn’t erase what’s been a bounce-back spring for the big right-hander.
“The last start of spring’s always a tough one,” Samardzija said. “You’re looking forward to getting the real thing going, you want to go out there and get your work in and just go from there. In that sense, I’m happy. I got through camp.”
Samardzija left Arizona with a 2.84 ERA, and 14 strikeouts to five walks (though he did give up four homers in 19 innings), clearly far ahead of where he was a year ago, when he missed the first three weeks of the season due to shoulder inflammation that started in spring training. He wasn’t worried about getting hit hard in his final outing.
“I left a few balls on the plate, got behind in the count a lot, had to attack the zone there in hitter’s counts,” Samardzija said. “That’s always a tough spot. It’s always a key for me to get ahead in the count early and dictate the at-bat from there, but they’re a patient team. They always have been.”
After Samardzija’s initial injury last year, he rushed himself back to try and help a club that was missing ace Madison Bumgarner (broken finger suffered in what was to be his final start of spring training) and had Johnny Cueto well on his way to needing Tommy John surgery. He was ineffective, to say the least, as he tried to pitch through the pain.
He spent 138 days on the DL over the course of three stints, and finished with a 5.44 ERA — his worst in a season in which he’s made at least 10 starts. This offseason, he worked on strengthening his shoulder and learning how to pull back instead of pushing ahead.
“Last year was what it was, we learned a lot from it,” Samardzija said. “We understand that you can’t just grit through everything, and there are some other things that go on there. For me, it’s just nice to be able to go up and throw all my pitches.”
Last season, Samardzija said, there wasn’t a particular pitch that was difficult to throw, but that his shoulder prevented him from executing consistently. He was able to throw everything on Monday, and has been able to throughout the spring.
“It was a lot of work, no offseason,” Samardzija said. “It’s just good to see all that work pay off, and trend in the right direction. Really happy with how spring went.”
Spring didn’t end well for outfielder Mac Williamson. With two outs and two men on in the bottom of the sixth, he turned on a pitch inside and was hit in the right hand by A’s reliever Brian Schlitter. Hitting .237 with 18 strikeouts and one home run this spring, it’s likely that Williamson will find himself the odd man out in the corner outfield position battle.
In the A’s first spring Bay Bridge sweep since 1989, the visitors got marvelous defense — a backhanded, somersaulting, headfirst grab in foul ground by Matt Chapman to end the second inning, and a nifty behind-the-bag pick by second baseman Franklin Barreto for the first out in the third — and timely hitting. Mark Canha, who sparked a four-run seventh on Monday, doubled in the top of the second to touch off a two-run inning, and then blasted a two-run homer in the fourth, spelling the end of Samardzija’s night.
A’s starter Aaron Brooks — angling for a gig as the fifth starter — wasn’t inspiring, but he got stronger as the game went on, striking out four in his final 2 1/3 innings of work and throwing 82 pitches before Connor Joe fisted a single past a diving Chad Pinder at second. Before the game, manager Bob Melvin intimated that a shin burger line drive to Chris Bassitt — the other contender — may make the fifth-starter decision for them.
Brooks — slated for 80 pitches — scattered five hits and walked two, with five strikeouts. He finishes spring with a 3.77 ERA.
After Brooks exited in the sixth, Schlitter loaded the bases and then reliever Jerry Blevins surrendered a line-drive two-run single over short to right fielder Gerardo Parra, cutting the lead in half. Blevins, though, would strike out Pablo Sandoval to end the frame. After that, the grounds crew then came on to pull the tarp as the gentle rain that had started an inning before became too much to continue play.
With the emergence of Connor Joe — a versatile, 26-year old corner infielder who can play all three outfield spots and catch — Sandoval may find himself on the outs when roster cut-downs come. The roster must be at 25 men by Thursday at noon, Eastern.