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.”

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

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Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.