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Samardzija's Head

Turn back the clock a few years and it might have been the newly-retired Kerry Wood, not Jeff Samardzija, whose errant splitter last Friday made Paul Konerko look more like former middleweight champ Carmen Basilio than the walking monument of the South Side.

Back in 2002-03, when a healthy Wood was about the same age as Samardzija and just learning how to pitch, he led the National League in hitting batters. Did he hit any of those 37 guys on purpose? It's not out of the question, but intent isn't necessarily the issue.

Let's assume for now that Samardzija absolutely made a mistake, just as we might assume that he made one earlier when Konerko slammed a two-run homer in the first inning. If this was simply human error, then why was it necessary for Philip Humber to unleash a 91-mile-an-hour fastball that wound up going behind Bryan LaHair an inning later?

(An interesting side note: Samardzija led off the bottom of the third. Needless to say, he was directly responsible for knocking Paulie out of the game and the remainder of the series. Yet, Humber didn't throw at him, which genuinely pissed off former National Leaguer and teammate Jake Peavy. Humber waited for LaHair in the bottom of the fourth. Egads! Are we led to believe Bryan LaHair is the equivalent of Konerko? Should Humber have waited even longer for Starlin Castro to come to the plate? Oh, where have you gone, Aramis Ramirez?)

Getting back to Kerry Wood, we have a detailed description of one of baseball's mind games from Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August, which chronicled a three-game Cardinal-Cub series in August of 2003.

" . . . [Wood] is on a pace to hit more batters than any National League pitcher since 1907," writes Bissinger. "His blazing high-and-tight fastball, which keeps hitters uneasy, may well be his most effective weapon."

Hmmm. Maybe Samardzija has read this book. Or, more likely, picked Wood's brain over the past couple of seasons.

Cardinal manager Tony La Russa not only retired after last season as No. 3 on the all-time wins list, but he also was famous for his eye-for-an-eye approach when it came to "protecting" his batters. Maybe Tony didn't invent "The Code," but I suspect he spent some sleepless nights wrestling with how to enforce it.

More from Bissinger:

"'There are so many conflicting emotions,' [La Russa] says, when your batter gets hit. Because how do you sort it out. How do you know for sure that the pitcher acted intentionally? Because pitchers do pitch inside, batters inevitably are going to get hit, and therein lay La Russa's dilemma. Was it simply a pitch that had gotten away? Was the pitcher trying to intimidate by going inside? Or was the pitcher taking a cheap shot and deliberately plunking someone?

"Other variables had to be considered as well: the pitcher's own reputation as a cheap-shot artist, and the club he was pitching for (some teams hit batters often enough to suggest that they'd made a policy of it)."

In Samardzija's case, Friday wasn't the first time this season his intent, or lack thereof, was questioned. Back on May 7, in a 5-1 win over the Braves at Wrigley, Jayson Heyward took him deep in the second inning for a short-lived 1-0 Atlanta lead. Heyward came up again two innings later with two outs and a man on first, and he grounded out. When the Braves' right fielder strolled to the plate again in the seventh inning with one out and the bases empty, Samardzija's first pitch drilled him.

In the bottom of the inning, Braves reliever Eric O'Flaherty retired the first two hitters and then hit David DeJesus. Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez wound up getting thrown out of the game, while at the same time gaining the respect of his players.

The problem on Friday was where Konerko got hit. Had the 2-2 pitch hit him in the ribs or legs, he would have trotted down to first, and my guess is that few eyebrows would have been raised.

"Thrown baseballs had ended careers; one had killed a major league player [Ray Chapman in 1920]," writes Bissinger. "In meetings with pitchers during spring training, [La Russa] issued clear guidelines: Any kind of message had to be aimed at the ribs or below, and nothing above the shoulder would be tolerated."

So mistake or not, Humber needed to respond. As did Robin Ventura if he cared at all about his team's respect. In his post-game interview, Robin predictably denied that Humber threw at LaHair. The reporter who inquired might be the same guy who asked police chief Garry McCarthy if his department was prepared for NATO weekend.

One guy who progressively became more agitated was Sox play-by-play man Hawk Harrelson. When he learned about the Samardzija-Heyward incident a few innings after Paulie was injured, his tone changed. When Samardzija was removed in the eighth inning in favor of Wood, Hawk instructed the Cubs starter to "grab some bench." I thought that dictum was solely reserved for opponents who struck out.

One of Harrelson's consistent edicts is that successful pitchers in the big leagues must learn to pitch inside, but hitting a guy in the face is another story. If a hitter knows that he's not going to be brushed back or jammed, he'll be much more confident about hitting pitches from the middle out.

Hawk's former broadcasting partner (1982-85), Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, was famous for dusting off hitters as one of the most intimidating pitchers during his 14 years (1956-69) with the Dodgers. Drysdale, who stood 6-foot-5 and had a motion whereby right-handed hitters saw the ball as coming from third base, ranks 18th all-time in hitting batters.

"The pitcher has to find out if the hitter is timid," Drysdale, who died of a heart attack in 1993, once said, "and if he is timid, he has to remind the hitter he's timid." Drysdale was being kind. He may as well have substituted "fearful" ("petrified" might be too strong) for "timid."

Of course, The Code was prominent 50 years ago, probably more so than today. "My own little rule was two for one," Drysdale said. "If one of my teammates got knocked down, then I'd knock down two on the other team."

Now that's the kind of guy you want to play behind. Conversely, a fierce foe of Drysdale's in those days was another Hall of Famer, Orlando Cepeda, who once said, "The trick against Drysdale is to hit him before he hits you."

Now my guess is that Jeff Samardzija won't be reading this column, and that's probably a good thing. It might give him some ideas, although he apparently already has a bit of Don Drysdale in him.

If the kid wants to truly play with fire, he'll check out John Grisham's Calico Joe, a little book about a fictional Cub, Joe Castle, of 40 years ago. Joe is a phenom to beat all phenoms. He makes Bryce Harper look like Eduardo Escobar. After being called up to the Cubs, in his first 31 games, he's hitting .521 with 18 homers and 25 stolen bases.

Fiction, of course, but Grisham has thrown in real names like Santo, Williams, Cardenal, and Monday, which is amusing and fun. Until a journeyman Mets pitcher takes matters into his hands with his own interpretation of The Code.

There's a three-in-five chance that the Sox will see Samardzija again when the Cubs visit the Cell next month. How effective can Samardzija be if he were to abandon pitching inside because of what happened on Friday? Not very. But if he makes another "mistake," the Crosstown Classic will once again become very interesting.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.

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