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CHICAGO WAS always the destination. Had the call-up never come, Jeff Samardzija still loved the city enough that he would have shown up there in September, unpacked from his second full season pitching in the minors and settled into the condo he bought in May, 10 blocks from Wrigley Field and 59 miles from his boyhood home in Valparaiso, Ind. Under that scenario the Cubs' 23-year-old fireballer of the future would have been reduced to a spectator, tantalizingly close to this year's juggernaut. As the franchise chased its first world championship in a century, Samardzija would have had time for more trivial tasks—sampling the Lakeview nightlife or, perhaps finding someone to fix the leaks in the ceiling of his new place.
Opposing National League hitters might have preferred it that way. But here in the condo, on an idyllic Sunday afternoon before a mid-August game against the Cardinals, is Samardzija, reclining on his dark brown leather couch. He'd arrived from Triple A Iowa three weeks earlier, on July 25, after closer Kerry Wood went on the 15-day disabled list with a blister. Forgive Samardzija if he hasn't gotten around to repairing the ceiling. His golden right arm, which he used to go 4--1 with a 3.13 ERA as a starter in Iowa, has earned him an early invite to the party atop the NL Central, where the Cubs were perched at week's end with a league-best 76--48 record, 5 1/2 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers.
And so the rookie soon throws on a polo shirt over his Dark Side of the Moon tee, climbs into his black Escalade EXT and unhurriedly drives those 10 blocks, pausing to soak in the scenery, mostly the pretty girls in their summer best, and to cue up Led Zeppelin in his CD changer. "I understand how crazy this all is," he says. "I'm not taking it for granted." Good Times Bad Times lasts two minutes and 46 seconds, enough to cover half the trip. He is a classic-rock nut, and he half-sings along. Samardzija's experiential scale has tipped heavily toward Good Times: In the last 18 months he was named an All-America wide receiver at Notre Dame, chose not to become a first-round NFL draft pick and to instead sign a guaranteed five-year, $10 million deal with the Cubs. And, of course, he made it to the bigs. In his debut against the Florida Marlins, he hit 99 mph on the gun and has not looked back: Through 11 relief appearances—which at week's end had included one-inning stints, two-inning stints, even a save—he had a 1.20 ERA with a 3.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He had also received a full vote of confidence from manager Lou Piniella. "He's not intimidated," Piniella says. "I'm comfortable using him in just about any situation."
The Cubs' bullpen was hardly in need of a savior, with Wood and righty setup man Carlos Marmol having put up All-Star first halves. Samardzija was merely a shot in the arm at a time when Wood was healing and Marmol was bouncing back from a brief midsummer swoon. Piniella calls the bushy-haired kid the "finishing touch" because the manager now has a potentially devastating seventh-eighth-ninth-inning trio to shorten games come October. Piniella also has the NL's deepest overall pen (righties Bob Howry and Chad Gaudin and lefty Neal Cotts could be solid setup men anywhere else), its best rotation and highest run differential (+166 through Sunday), all strong indicators that the World Series signs at Wrigley Field may not be presumptuous when they decree IT'S GONNA HAPPEN.
IT WAS 18 years ago that Sweet Lou, not yet gray-specked under his cap, won his last World Series (and first as a manager), with the Reds. In Cincinnati he was blessed with a dominant pen that featured righty Rob (Officer) Dibble and lefties Norm (the Genius) Charlton and Randy (the Gentleman) Myers. You remember them better as the Nasty Boys, hard-throwing miscreants of a bygone era during which velocity was employed not just to set down batters (they had a combined 351 K's in 339 innings in 1990) but knock them down as well. "We were pretty much mean," Charlton, now the bullpen coach of the Seattle Mariners, says of the Nasty Boys. "If you looked at us wrong, we would try to hit you."
It wasn't the number of batters that the Nasty Boys plunked (only eight in '90) that mattered; the mere threat of getting nicked struck enough fear. But just as Piniella is far less likely, in 2008, to fight a reliever in the clubhouse (he once famously grappled with Dibble after the pitcher had accused him of lying), the modern-day reliever is far less likely to court warnings or ejections from increasingly protective umpires.
"We used to knock guys down, and they'd get up, dust off and get back in the box," Charlton says. "Do that now, and they'll charge the mound and you end up with suspensions. The game has changed, and it's no longer accepted. The guys the Cubs have now, they still throw inside, but why would they risk trouble when they are where they are?"
Piniella wasn't looking for Nasty Boys Redux when he built this Cubs pen anyway. He simply likes velocity, and in Wood, Marmol and Samardzija, who all throw in the 90s, he has it. They can be classified as nasty under an evolved definition of the word, in that they aggressively attack the strike zone and have filthy movement on their signature pitches. As Wood, 31, already an 11-year veteran, says of Samardzija and the 25-year-old Marmol, "They can afford to make some mistakes because, with their stuff, they can still get away with them."
The 6'5", 218-pound Samardzija, who catcher Geovany Soto says is "just getting by on pure ability at this point," has a bullish presence and has been thriving mostly with an electric two-seam fastball. Meanwhile Marmol, who was signed out of the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old in 1999 and converted from a catcher in 2003, breaks off wicked sliders that, says Cards centerfielder (and former pitcher) Rick Ankiel, "look exactly the same as his fastball coming out of his hand."
Wood, the goateed Texan, has reinvented himself as a closer after a dozen trips to the DL and a near retirement in '07. Not surprisingly, he has a cooler mound demeanor than his younger, more demonstrative colleagues. "Kerry's competitiveness," says Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild, "is expressed more inwardly"—but his talent is still manifested in heat that resembles what he threw as a rookie, when he famously whiffed 20 batters in just his fifth major league start. Samardzija was 13 at the time. "Growing up, for as long as I can remember being a baseball fan," he says, "I was watching Kerry Wood strike dudes out at Wrigley."