CHICAGO -- Jeff Samardzija has made it clear since he was drafted by the Cubs how much he wanted to be known as a big league starting pitcher, and not a one-time All-America wide receiver. On Sunday, he looked a lot like the former.
Samardzija struck out a career-best eight and gave up four hits over 8 2/3 innings as the Cubs edged the Nationals, 4-3, to give manager Dale Sveum his first win.
This was Samardzija's sixth career start and first since September 2010 after spending last season in the bullpen. He won a spot in the rotation this spring, and on Sunday, he was effective, throwing first-pitch strikes to all but five of the 31 batters he faced. It was his longest career outing, topping a six-inning start Sept. 19, 2010, against the Marlins.
"I really feel I had a chip on my shoulder," Samardzija said. "I've talked a big game about wanting to start, and made it public. I don't want to look like an idiot. I wanted to come out and do what I needed to do and be in the zone, and let the guys behind me work."
Samardzija cruised after a leadoff double by Ian Desmond to start the game. He retired 15 in a row after that hit before Wilson Ramos singled to lead off the sixth.
The right-hander had 90 pitches entering the ninth and retired the first two batters. Samardzija then induced a grounder to short by Ryan Zimmerman, but Starlin Castro's errant throw extended the inning. Adam LaRoche followed with a two-run homer to knock Samardzija from the game. Carlos Marmol, who already has a loss and a blown save in the first two games, took over and walked Jayson Werth before getting Xavier Nady to pop out in foul territory to seal the win.
"LaRoche is a great fastball hitter, and I went a little 'Garza' on everybody and tried to blow his doors off, and he took it about 400 feet to right," Samardzija said, referring to teammate Matt Garza, who does have a tendency to try to throw everything hard. "That's the way it goes. I'd been throwing him soft all game, and I let my ego get in the way there a little bit."
Sveum had come out to check on Samardzija after Zimmerman reached.
"He said the right things when I went out there," Sveum said. "One hesitation and I think he would've been out of the game. Maybe there should have been a hesitation. For him to never in a big league game get that far in, [that was awesome]. There were tough decisions, but he didn't have a lot of stress all day.
"He's a big guy, a big horse, and hopefully, he bounces back from that," Sveum said. "That's not something I really wanted to do, but he was throwing so well, it was tough to take him out."
Sveum, named the Cubs' 52nd manager last November, could finally celebrate a "W." The last time Chicago began the year 0-3 was in 1997, when the team opened 0-14.
"It means a lot, especially to do it at home," Sveum said. "I think the way it came about after tough two losses, to win one like that was fun. They're all going to be nerve-wracking.
"Everybody congratulated me," he said. "It's just another win, even though it was our first."
The Cubs took a 1-0 lead in the fourth when Castro singled with one out, then stole second and advanced to third on a passed ball before scoring on Alfonso Soriano's sacrifice fly to left. Soriano added an RBI single in the sixth and in the eighth, Castro hit an RBI double and Ian Stewart added an RBI single to open a 4-1 lead.
Samardzija, 27, got some help from his defense. Soriano made a running catch to track down LaRoche's ball in left-center to end the fourth and Stewart made an impressive stop of Werth's hard-hit ball down the line and threw him out in the seventh.
There were other positives. Marmol got his first save after a rough start to the season.
"With your closer, confidence is everything," Sveum said. "You can throw the ball great and blow a save. ... Sometimes it's not just the guy's pitching bad either. There's got to be some luck involved."
The Nationals had rallied in the first two games in the eighth inning, but fell short this time.
"I figured if we stayed within one run, we'd win the ballgame," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "You have to tip your hat to [Samardzija]. He pitched one heck of a ballgame."
Give catcher Steve Clevenger some credit. Making his first start, the converted shortstop was Samardzija's teammate in the Minor Leagues.
"I can remember me and [Clevenger] trying to get through four innings at [Class A] Daytona [in 2007], which was tough," Samardzija said. "He's caught me probably 100 times. I feel comfortable with [Clevenger] back there. He's relaxed. It was his first game catching, and he didn't show it at all."
Sveum was aware of Samardzija's football background, watching Notre Dame games on Saturday afternoons along with millions of other people.
"A lot of the decisions you make with Jeff is knowing he has that background," Sveum said. "He's played in front of 100,000 people and performed at an extremely high level, going across the middle and getting pounded by 250-pound linebackers. You know what's in him, the guts and everything. A lot of your decisions with him flash back to 'Hey, this guy has been in a heck of a lot different situations, and just as tough situations in a major college program.'"
Now, Samardzija will have four days to prepare for his next start. His focus is on baseball.
"We've got a lot more to go," he said. "I want to start, because I feel I can pitch a lot and throw a lot of pitches. I felt good in the ninth inning today. I can take a deep breath now and concentrate on what I need to do, game to game, and make adjustments. It's nice to go out and get off on the right foot."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.