Cubs

Addison Russell delivers late as Cubs top Nationals for sixth straight win

Addison Russell delivers late as Cubs top Nationals for sixth straight win

Addison Russell is getting one of those reputations. The dude’s clutch.

Russell’s numbers haven’t been terrific this season. He’s one of several Cubs whose averages don’t match the team’s electric start to the campaign. But Russell has been doing plenty of things well, one of them being delivering in clutch situations.

He was at it again Saturday, the 22-year-old shortstop dropping a fly ball on the right-field foul line past the outstretched arm of reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper and driving in a pair of runs to break a 5-all tie in the seventh inning, the game-winning hit in the Cubs’ 8-5 win over the Nationals, their sixth straight.

“I think it’s fun,” Russell said. “You just try and slow the game down, just try do your best to perform out there and just try to have some fun with it.”

Other than Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter in Cincinnati, the most exhilirating moment of this dominant start to the season for the Cubs might be Russell’s game-winning home run in the eighth inning against the Reds on April 11. On April 26, Russell delivered late again, breaking a 1-all tie against the Brewers with a two-run triple in the sixth inning en route to an eventual Cubs win.

Add Saturday’s clutch hit to the list.

“Addy does this all the time,” Maddon said. “You look at Addy’s batting average and look at the productivity driving in runs in crucial moments, he’s really good at that. He doesn’t get going too quickly, too fast.”

The win was an unusual one for these Cubs. The starting pitcher, Jason Hammel, didn’t perform all that well, needing 97 pitches just to get through five innings and departing with his team trailing by two. There was no gigantic margin created by the Cubs’ offense, one that with a gaudy plus-101 run differential has won in mostly blowouts.

No, instead, the Cubs had to prove they could win a back-and-forth battle with a late comeback, and prove that they did.

After Hammel yielded a third-inning sacrifice fly, the Cubs answered with a Dexter Fowler RBI triple and a Kris Bryant solo home run that you wouldn’t have thought possible with the wind blowing in as hard as it was at Wrigley Field.

Hammel’s rocky fifth inning saw the Nationals take a lead with a two-run, two-out rally. But the Cubs responded with their own two-out rally, getting an RBI single from Russell and a two-run single from Ryan Kalish in the sixth.

The Nationals tied things up, turning a leadoff triple into a run in the seventh. But then came Russell’s big hit in the bottom of that inning. Ben Zobrist added a big insurance run with a bases-loaded single in the eighth.

The Cubs got good efforts from the majority of the six pitchers who came in from the bullpen, particularly Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon, who set down all six hitters they faced in order in the eighth and ninth innings.

It was an all-around win, a game that wasn’t the typical blowout the Cubs have gotten used to. But it appears there’s nothing to worry about with a team that’s now won 23 times in its first 29 games. They can win any game in any way.

“Hats off to the hitters, they kept coming back,” Hammel said. “It was one of those see-saw games. We really haven’t had many of those this year, been kind of blowing people out. But today it was never quit. The guys kept coming.”

“When you win games like we did today, that’s the game you can really draw from, where our guys know not to quit,” Maddon said. “Everything we did today was very complementary. The whole group complements each other so well.”

This latest Cubs win was the team’s sixth straight, it’s 23rd of the still-young season. And after fielding mild criticism that their successful April was due in part to a schedule loaded with subpar opposition, these six straight wins have come against playoff-caliber teams from Pittsburgh and Washington.

This team came into the season with sky-high World Series expectations. And through nearly 30 games, no matter what these Cubs face, they seem to have no problem meeting those expectations.

Yes, that celebration room in the fancy new clubhouse is getting quite a bit of use.

“We’re just having a lot of fun right now,” Russell said. “The coaches, they keep it light. The players, they keep it light. We’ve got veterans here that know what they’re doing, and they keep the stress off us.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.