ATLANTA -- Jeff Samardzija recovered from his June swoon, Anthony Rizzo learned a lesson and Luis Valbuena delivered again.
Samardzija struck out a career-high 11 batters, Rizzo belted his second home run and Valbuena hit a three-run double to lead the Cubs to a 4-1 victory Monday over the Braves, extending their winning streak to a season-high four games.
The Braves weren't sure which Samardzija they'd be facing. The right-hander was coming off a terrible June when he was 0-4 with a 10.41 ERA in five games. On Monday, he gave up four hits over seven innings, and the 11 K's not only topped his previous high of nine, done April 24 against the Cardinals, but also are the most in a single game by a Cubs starter this year.
"The game was Samardzija," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He kept us off balance the whole night, throwing the 94-mile-an-hour fastball, and he had his split going. There were a few times he would throw it four or five times in a row, and we had no chance. ... He proved he was better than what those [June] numbers showed."
It's all part of growing up.
"You expect him to build on the experiences he had to go through in the last month," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said of Samardzija, who's in his first full season as a starter in the big leagues. "Sometimes it's just like hitters -- a hitter is hitting .300 and he wants to hit .330 and he comes up with new things and it gets away from him instead of understanding what you are and what made you successful and sticking to that and not getting too complicated."
The difference? Samardzija said he put in some "elbow grease" between starts to get back on track. The problems in June were more mental than physical.
"I felt I wasn't giving myself the right opportunity to succeed, and that's frustrating, especially with how our team has been playing," Samardzija said. "You don't want to be the one guy who lets your team down. I came out today and attacked the zone."
He wasn't counting the K's.
"That has a lot to do with the splitter," Samardzija said. "The splitter was there and I kept them off balance and I was throwing my fastball for strikes, too."
"He just got back to when all the good things happened with the slider and the split," Sveum said. "Obviously, the split was there tonight -- it was diving off the table. It's one pitch he was working on and got it back and dominated the game with it."
Rizzo, who will mark his one-week anniversary with the Cubs on Tuesday, singled with two outs in the first but was stranded. He made sure that didn't happen in the fourth, leading off with his second home run, an opposite-field blast off the first pitch from Tommy Hanson (9-5).
With two outs in the Atlanta sixth, Michael Bourn doubled and scored on Martin Prado's single to tie the game. But the Cubs loaded the bases in the seventh as Bryan LaHair and Steve Clevenger each singled and Darwin Barney walked. Valbuena lined a double to right, and reached third on an error by first baseman Freddie Freeman, who couldn't handle Jason Heyward's throw.
"I feel good playing every day," Valbuena said. "I enjoy getting the opportunity to play."
Valbuena, who has taken over at third for Ian Stewart, out for the year with a wrist injury, now has 13 RBIs. Stewart had 17 before being sidelined.
"He keeps driving in runs in bunches," Sveum said. "You look up and you think he's hitting about .340, but he's only hitting .250. He's getting big hits, and his slugging percentage and everything like that is huge. I wish I'd had him all year."
The game also included a defensive lapse that actually could pay off in the long run. With two outs in the second, Dan Uggla hit a grounder to shortstop Starlin Castro, who delayed his throw to first. Rizzo was playing off the bag, which might have been the reason Castro hesitated. Uggla was safe, and Sveum talked to both Castro and Rizzo in the dugout. Samardzija then got Brian McCann to ground out and end the inning.
Apparently, Rizzo told Castro to give him a little time.
"Rizzo came to his rescue right away," Sveum said. "Rizzo told him to give him time to get to the bag. He got caught probably trying to get too much ground and telling [Castro] to take his time when he gets a ball deep in the hole. I apologized to Castro after. Not that I said anything, but Rizzo came to his rescue right away and said, 'Skip, that was my fault. I told him to give me time.' Obviously, on that kind of ball, you can't take your time with it."
Rizzo took the blame.
"It's my fault, in my opinion," Rizzo said. "I told him before that to give me a little time. That's just me not knowing Uggla's speed. He just beat the throw."
The Cubs want Castro and Rizzo on the same page for now and possibly the next 10 years.
"Those are two two-way players," Sveum said. "The athleticism they have and the ability with the bat, it's nice as a manager to know -- hopefully, I'm around for the next 10 years -- it's nice to know you have two corner guys who will be pretty good for a long period of time."
Rizzo has hit safely in five of his first six games, and he reached base in all six. Not bad for a rookie.
"I just take it at-bat by at-bat and learn from each at-bat and get my confidence up more and go from there," Rizzo said.
"Rizzo's presence in our lineup is big," Samardzija said. "Any time you add a big lefty bat to the lineup is big time. And he's young, too, and can play every day and we expect big things out of him every day. The best thing about him is he expects big things, too."
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.