OAKLAND -- If the A's wind up making the playoffs, they will owe at least a small debt to Taco Bell and its zesty pepper jack sauce.

As a seventh-grader, Jeff Samardzija once ate so many gorditas before football practice that he staggered to the sideline and called it a day after 15 minutes. The exit did not sit well with his father, Sam Samardzija, a former semipro hockey player with no appetite for quitters.

"Let's just say I never sat out another practice again," Samardzija said.

To the contrary, dad taught Samardzija to become a ferocious competitor. A's catcher Derek Norris says Samardzija now approaches each start as if still wearing the helmet and pads he once sported as an All-America wide receiver at Notre Dame.

"He's still got that football mentality," Norris said. "For lack of better words, it's: 'I'm going to freaking kill you. I'm coming after you, and I'll do anything I can to get you out.'"

Regaining his intensity

That side of Samardzija, 29, was largely obscured during his seven seasons with the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs finished 31 games out last season, were 36 games out the year before that, 25 the year before that, and were the Cubs every year before that.

But when Samardzija takes the mound Friday at O.Co for his 12th start as an Athletic, he'll find himself in the thick of a pennant race for the first time in his career. The right-hander faces the Houston Astros with the A's (79-60) entering play five games out of first place and holding the top wild-card spot.


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It's safe to say Samardzija is hungry again.

"I've learned to be consistently ready no matter the situation, but if I had it my way, every seat would be filled and the lights would always be on," he said. "That's why you play this game. That's what you strive to be part of."

If nothing else, pitching for the Cubs prepared Samardzija mentally for what it's like to pitch for a team with a struggling offense. He had a 1.46 ERA over his first 10 starts but was 0-4 because of his meager run support.

The A's bats have gone nearly as silent in the wake of the Yoenis Cespedes trade. But Samardzija is a tough guy to rattle.

Paul Mainieri, the baseball coach at Notre Dame, was among the first to see the pitcher's fiery side. Samardzija had been mostly an outfielder in high school and missed fall baseball practice because of football season.

So Mainieri was still getting to know him when the raw-armed freshman faced rival Michigan in front of Notre Dame's biggest home crowd of the year. The Irish led 3-0 with one out in the fourth inning when Samardzija suddenly lost control. He threw 12 consecutive balls -- 12! -- to walk the bases loaded.

Mainieri headed to the mound still debating whether to give the kid the hook.

"Well, what are you thinking?" the coach asked.

"I'm thinking you ought to go back to the dugout and let me get these next two hitters out," Samardzija replied.

Strikeout. Pop out. Inning over.

"I knew right then and there that there was something special about this kid," said Mainieri, now the head coach at LSU. "Here's an inexperienced pitcher in an environment that was really intense. He's a freshman and he tells the coach: 'Don't worry about it.'

"He has the most unflappable self-confidence of any athlete I've ever been around. The brighter the lights, the better this kid is."

Mainieri, of course, had only joint custody of Samardzija. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder belonged to the football team in fall.

And when the school hired Charlie Weis to replace Tyrone Willingham as head coach, the baseball coach and the football coach took a long car ride to get better acquainted.

The conversation, of course, turned to Samardzija. And Mainieri told the offensive-minded coach that the player was capable of so much more than the 24 catches he totaled in two seasons under Willingham.

"Charlie, I don't know how you define the word 'it' but this kid has 'it,' " Mainieri told him as they barreled down Interstate 90. "There is no doubt in my mind that he's a winner and that if you use him properly, that this kid could end up doing remarkable things for the football program."

A gridiron star

Samardzija promptly went on to set Notre Dame single-season records for catches (77, tied with Tom Gatewood's 1970 total), yards (1,249) and touchdowns (15) to earn consensus All-America honors. He was selected as team MVP along with quarterback Brady Quinn.

"The kid could catch anything," Quinn said when reached by phone this week. Quinn is looking to hook on for an eighth NFL season. "No matter where I put the ball, he could adjust his body and make an acrobatic move. Sometimes that meant making a catch and sometimes that meant keeping a foot in bounds. He was amazing.

"If he'd played in the NFL, I think he would have had a long and productive career. He was just a natural at whatever sport he played."

Baseball, though, was always his first love, so he eventually spurned basketball (he was part of a 5-on-5 campus championship team at Notre Dame), soccer (he started at age 5), hockey (his father's choice) and even football (despite first-round buzz).

Sheesh, Jeff, is there any sport you stink at?

"Golf," Samardzija said. "My swing looks like a junkyard. It's all pieced together."

Back in playoff hunt

The A's, of course, couldn't care less about his golf game, so long as he keeps the scores low on the diamond. Samardzija is 4-4 with a 3.57 ERA since being acquired with Jason Hammel in a July 4 trade. The Cubs got prospects Billy McKinney and Addison Russell, pitcher Dan Straily and a player to be named.

On the day he was traded to a first-place team, the Cubs were 111/2 games out.

Now, he has a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008, when he contributed 272/3 innings as a rookie out of the bullpen. Samardzija's lone postseason appearance: one inning as the Los Angeles Dodgers swept the Cubs 3-0.

"You get a little taste of it when you're young, and you think it's always going to happen," he said. "You kind of take it for granted and assume that that's the way things are."

Samardzija now is a savvier pitcher than he was as a rookie, the late bloom you'd expect from a ballplayer who spent so long moonlighting with football.

He was an All-Star for the first time this season, thanks to better control of a four-seam fastball that clocks in at an average of 94.6 mph, according to FanGraphs.com.

Samardzija also throws a two-seamer, a cutter, a splitter and a slider. But he and his catchers say that it's the improved command of that hard four-seamer that keys his game plan.

"He's a power pitcher, and he understands that," said A's backup catcher Geovany Soto, who also caught Samardzija in Chicago. "He's just always coming after you. He never quits. He's got a lot of determination, and he competes the whole game."

In the A's clubhouse, Samardzija has the locker next to Jon Lester, another veteran pitcher acquired for the stretch drive. But their careers are far apart: Lester already has two World Series rings and 11 career playoff starts.

Samardzija, the longtime Cub, is suddenly so close to October that he can taste it. And this is the kind of all-you-can eat buffet even his father could support.

"He doesn't back down against anybody," Norris said. "He's out to shove it up anybody's (nose) that he faces, whether he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer or a guy who just got called up. He's a competitor, man. You can see it."

Contact Daniel Brown at dbrown@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercBrownie.

FRIDAY'S GAME
Houston (Brett Oberholtzer 4-10) at A's (Jeff Samardzija 6-11),
7:05 p.m. CSNCA

SAMARDZIJA'S 2014
Jeff Samardzija's month-to-month stats this season with the Cubs and A's:
With Cubs W L ERA
March/April 0 3 1.98
May 1 1 1.32
June 1 3 5.45
With A's W L ERA
July 2 1 3.19
August 2 3 3.92
Total 6 11 3.14