The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 31, 2013

Burnett, Samardzija ready for opener

PITTSBURGH — Jeff Samardzija can only hope his performance today matches his last opening game in Pittsburgh.

Samardzija will start for the Chicago Cubs and A.J. Burnett for the Pittsburgh Pirates today as two teams with long streaks of futility meet on opening day. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992.

After losing 101 games last season, the Cubs will look for Samardzija to get them off to a better start in the second year of the Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer administration.

This will be the first opening-day start for Samardzija, who went 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA in 28 games last year in his first full season as a starting pitcher.

As a junior wide receiver at Notre Dame in 2005, Samardzija caught three passes for 34 yards and one touchdown to help the Fighting Irish beat Pitt, 42-21, in Charlie Weis’ first game as coach. Samardzija went on to become a consensus All-America that year.

“That was a big moment for me, scoring my first college touchdown, but football seems so long ago now,” Samardzija said. “I’m a baseball player.”

Though he likely would have been a high-round pick in the NFL draft, Samardzija opted to play professional baseball and has established himself with the Cubs in the past two seasons. He went 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA in 75 relief appearances in 2011 before making the conversion to the rotation.

“He was one of the bright spots for us last year,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. “He really did a great of moving into the rotation and being very consistent. He is one of the players we feel we can build around.”

Burnett will be making his first opening-day start of his 15-year career. He was the undisputed ace during his first season with the Pirates last year, going 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA in 31 starts after being acquired from the New York Yankees in a trade on the eve of spring training.

Burnett helped the Pirates stay in contention for a playoff spot into early September before they faded.

“I don’t know exactly what my emotions will be like because I’ve never pitched on opening day before, but I’m glad that it’s happening in Pittsburgh,” Burnett said. “I really love It here. Last year was the most fun I had in a long time. It’s a great group of guys to play with and the fans have treated me great.”

Burnett is considering retirement at the end of this season when the $82.5 million, five-year contract he signed with the Yankees expires. Burnett is 36 and his children are 12 and 9, so a more normal lifestyle is appealing.

However, Burnett has developed such an affinity for Pittsburgh that he would consider playing in 2014 if the Pirates are interested in having him back.

What Burnett would like to do is help the Pirates over the .500 mark. Their 20 consecutive losing seasons is the longest streak in major North American professional sports history.

Pittsburgh was 63-47 before play on Aug. 9 and finished 79-83.

“We flirted with .500 last year,” Burnett said. “It’s time for us to start winning. We’ve got a good enough team to do it. We need to get off to a good start, set a good tone early in the season, and go from there.”

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