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Getting rest and watching scoreboards, Cubs ready for life in playoff race

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Getting rest and watching scoreboards, Cubs ready for life in playoff race

It’s been a while since the Cubs were in the thick of a playoff race, so please pardon reporters covering the team, Joe Maddon, if scoreboard-watching and the effect of September call-ups are topics of interest.

The Cubs manager fielded questions about how late-season regularities will work now that the North Side is embroiled in the chase for a National League wild-card spot.

First up, the pending September call-ups. An annual thing, recently those call-ups have served as an opportunity for the Cubs to get a look at the next big prospect, the guy who would be part of the team’s future. With most of those guys — Javier Baez is a notable exception — now part of the team’s present, September call-ups could serve a different purpose as the Cubs try and run down a slot in the postseason.

“You don’t want to bring too many guys up normally. When you get in the position that we’re getting into right now, a couple things have to be factored in,” Maddon said before Friday’s win over the Braves. “Speed has to be factored in, that’s one thing, bullpen has to be factored in, catching has to be factored in to make sure that you’re covered in all these areas. So you may get a little bit heavy at times based on the fact that you’re in the hunt, and you want to be covered.”

[MORE CUBS: Bullpen becoming strength for Cubs at right time]

Resting players will be of the utmost importance down the stretch. And Maddon’s started doing it already. Kris Bryant came out of the game Thursday, sparking injury panic, but the All-Star third baseman was just getting a few innings off. The platoon of Chris Coghlan and Starlin Castro at second base has allowed Maddon to get all his middle infielders, including Addison Russell, off their feet for several-inning chunks.

A lot of these guys have yet to play a full big league season yet, let alone the at least one additional game that comes with a wild-card spot. The Cubs, obviously, are hoping their season goes more games than 163.

“The other point that I’m very much about is that if it’s a bad game to get your regular people off their feet, you’re covered to get guys off their feet,” Maddon said. “Even in a good game, where it’s a blowout in a good way, to get your regular guys off their feet and get somebody else out there to get that break that they need.”

[MORE CUBS: Kyle Schwarber working on being Cubs' left fielder of the present]

Then there’s that other aspect of the playoff race: the teams you’re racing.

Maddon stuck with the take-care-of-your-own-business cliche — a cliche that makes complete sense, by the way — but he couldn’t help but admit that he’s got his eye on the scores of games from around the NL. How can he avoid it? That giant hand-operated scoreboard in center field is pretty hard to miss from the third-base dugout.

“Because the board is right in your face, I kind of like that. Just look up,” Maddon said before Saturday’s game. “I don’t stare. I’m not anxious about it at all. But I’m definitely checking in once in a while.

“It’s there. But my mantra has always been you win and don’t worry about what everybody else is doing.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Of course, taking care of their own business is the easiest way to get to the playoffs, and that seemingly worn-out answer is a pretty reasonable one. That’s what the Cubs are focused on. And with the confidence they’re playing with, it’s a good attitude to have.

Take it from someone who’s been in this position before. Jason Motte was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals during their playoff chases in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2014. He won a World Series ring in 2011, pitching in 12 postseason games — including five World Series games — after the Cardinals held off the Braves and Giants to win the wild-card race.

“I feel that the mindset in this clubhouse right now is very similar to the mindset that was in St. Louis. It’s the mindset of we have a good team and we can win these ballgames,” Motte said Saturday. “You go up there, you’ve got to battle every at-bat, you’ve got to battle every pitch. And that’s what guys are doing. The attitude in this clubhouse is great. Even after those two losses to Detroit (on Tuesday and Wednesday), it stunk, but it was like — even after the first one — ‘OK, let’s go out there and get them tomorrow.’”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: