Cubs’ Samardzija, Pirates’ Burnett ready to open

Jeff Samardzija can only hope his performance Monday matches his
last opening game in Pittsburgh.

Samardzija will start for the Chicago Cubs and A.J. Burnett for
the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday 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.”