Cubs

Cubs: Addison Russell getting comfortable playing off shortstop

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Cubs: Addison Russell getting comfortable playing off shortstop

By promoting Addison Russell after only 11 games at Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs sent the message that he’s a big part of a win-now team and not the distant future, reinforcing the idea that he’s essentially untouchable.

In cases like this, other teams usually get the hint and move on, looking deeper inside another farm system to see if there are still any potential trade scenarios. For the Cubs, Russell headlining a deal for someone like, say, Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels is a nonstarter.

However the Cubs wind up getting more pitching, know that the New York Mets aren’t exactly enamored with Starlin Castro and publicly say they’re committed to Wilmer Flores at shortstop. The Starlin-to-New York rumors should end with Thursday’s 6-5 win and the Cubs finishing the four-game sweep at Wrigley Field. 

Because broadly speaking Castro is too much of a free swinger – and not enough of a power hitter – for Mets general manager Sandy Alderson and an Ivy League front office rooted in “Moneyball.”   

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The Cubs also don’t want to tear apart their middle infield at a time when they figure to be in the wild-card hunt and hope to be in the division race.

“We’ve been working on double plays,” Russell said. “We kind of have a good sense of where we want our feeds and how each other reacts to the ball. We’re coming along good.”

Russell carries himself with a quiet confidence and fits into the clubhouse so well that it’s easy to forget he’s only 21 years old and learning a new position on the fly in the majors.

“It’s pretty spectacular,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You have to understand (it’s) not only changing positions but changing sides of the field. Entirely different. When you’re playing on the left side at shortstop, and then you go to the right side, the ball off the bat, the angles are entirely different. Where you’re supposed to go on different plays – entirely different.

“I’ve talked about the road map before. That really takes a little bit of forethought regarding: Where am I supposed to be if this happens? But more than anything, the way the ball comes off the bat, it’s always going to go away from you, hook or slice. And you got to get used to (it).

“The (other) difference (is) the double play. And it’s not as easy as it looks when the guy is coming up your butt and all of a sudden you got to get out of the way. There’s different ways to protect yourself, whether it’s using the bag, stepping back, coming across. It depends on how hard the ball is hit.

“When the ball is hit real softly, you probably got to get out of the way, come across the bag. If it’s hit hard, you can protect yourself differently. There are all these little nuances. It’s not that easy and he’s made a nice adjustment.”

[RELATED - Is Kris Bryant the long-term answer at third base?]

Russell – who entered this season as Baseball America’s No. 3 overall prospect – has been able to hide a little bit in Kris Bryant’s shadow and as a No. 9 hitter. He knows he’s nowhere close to being a finished product at second base.

“Still getting there,” Russell said. “Even if I’ve been playing there for years and years, I still want to learn something about the position. So there’s a long way to go, I think. But I’m getting more comfortable.”

Russell’s presence could also have the added benefit of motivating Castro, who’s still a three-time All-Star at the age of 25, with seemingly all of his prime years in front of him and a team-friendly contract that could run through 2020.  

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“Right now, the thing that I’m really impressed with is how he’s leading himself, if that makes any sense,” Maddon said of Castro. “He’s really been animated and he gets upset with himself if he doesn’t come through in the moment. If he makes a mistake, he’s really holding himself highly accountable. And I think the other guys are seeing that.

“I don’t know if you’ve watched him a whole lot on the infield with Addison. They’re talking a lot and it’s starting from Starlin towards ‘Addie.’ It’s not the other way around. I’ve seen a lot of that.” 

Yu Darvish still searching for results, but maintains he's on the cusp of putting it all together

Yu Darvish still searching for results, but maintains he's on the cusp of putting it all together

Yu Darvish accomplished something Saturday he has never done in a Cubs uniform — he pitched at least 5 innings in three straight starts for the first time since signing that $126 million deal more  than 14 months ago.

That's not exactly an indicator that Darvish will be contending for the National League Cy Young this season, but it's certainly a step in the right direction from his previous 10 starts in Chicago.

Darvish lasted just 5 innings in Saturday's 6-0 loss to the Diamondbacks, needing 88 pitches to get through those frames before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth inning. 

He retired 12 of the final 14 batters he faced, including a pair of strikeouts to end his last inning. 

Does he feel like he's still moving forward?

"I think so, especially that last inning," Darvish said. "The fifth inning — mentally — was very good. It's good for next start."

The end line Saturday wasn't great — 5 innings, 5 hits, 3 runs, 3 walks, 7 strikeouts, 2 homers — but he kept his team in the ballgame after giving up back-to-back homers to the second and third hitters of the afternoon.

He was still hitting 96 mph in the fifth inning and acknowledged he could've easily gone another inning if the Cubs weren't trailing 3-0 when his spot in the batting order came up.

"The fastball velocity came up as the game was going on, the breaking ball got sharper," Joe Maddon said. "...They got him quickly and then [Zack] Greinke pitched so well. I thought keeping it at 3, which Yu did do, and that's really not a bad thing after the beginning of that game. We just could not get to Greinke. 

"Had we been able to get back into the game, I think Yu's performance would've been looked on more favorably, because he actually did settle down and do a pretty good job."

Still, the Cubs need more than moral victories every time Darvish takes the ball.

Theo Epstein said earlier this month he doesn't think it's fair to issue a "start-to-start referendum" on Darvish, but this is 5 starts into the season now for the 32-year-old right-hander, who's walked 18 batters and served up 6 homers in 22.2 innings so far. 

Forget the salary or the big free agent deal. This is a four-time All-Star who has twice finished in the Top 10 in Cy Young voting, yet fell to 2-6 with a 5.31 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 13 starts in a Cubs uniform. 

In those 13 starts, Darvish has walked multiple batters in 11 of them and allowed at least 3 earned runs in 8 outings. He's also averaged less than 5 innings a start overall, and that number is down to just 4.5 innings per outing in 2019. 

Darvish said he wants to pitch into the seventh inning (something he's never done as a Cub) and believes that would be great for his confidence that's been building — slowly but surely — since the start of the season. But he still has to get over that hump.

"His stuff's nasty — plain and simple," Jason Heyward said. "Any time I pitch with Yu in a video game, guarantee at least a 1-hitter. I feel like his confidence is just another thing he'll have to keep building on for himself. 

"Every game is different. Today was — I guess you could say — a step back or whatever. Last start was pretty good and next start, I know he's gonna come out and be hungry again. ... Today was one day. We got a long season. Hopefully next time we can scratch a few runs across."

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Cubs get more encouraging news on Jon Lester

Cubs get more encouraging news on Jon Lester

The news on Brandon Morrow might not be so positive, but the Cubs did receive very good reports on their injured ace this weekend.

Jon Lester threw a simulated game against a couple of his Cubs teammates Saturday morning at Wrigley Field, tossing 45 pitches in total. In between "innings" of the sim game, Lester was also working out on the side in an effort to ramp up the intensity and simulate more of a game feel to see how his injured left hamstring will respond.

Lester initially went on the injured list two weeks ago after he was removed in the third inning of the Cubs' home opener on April 8, when he hurt his hamstring running the bases.

"[The sim game went] really well," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "I thought he looked very good. Pretty amazing where he's at already. ... Did not hold back at all, so it's very encouraging."

Maddon also said he thought Lester's stuff looked good from where he was watching behind the catcher and pointed out that the Cubs ace was "hypercritical of himself," indicating that Lester's focus was on competing and making good pitches instead of worrying about his hamstring or any physical limitations.

The Cubs don't have a next step mapped out for Lester just yet, as they will see how the 35-year-old feels Sunday after the "rigorous" activity Saturday.

There is currently no timetable for his return, but Maddon didn't rule out the possibility that Lester would be able to pitch sometime in the coming week.

The Cubs rotation has looked very good since Lester went down — combining for a 0.96 ERA in the last 7 games before Yu Darvish struggled early in Saturday's tilt with the Diamondbacks.

Tyler Chatwood gets the ball for the Cubs Sunday to close out the series against Arizona and then the team has Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels lined up for the first two games of the series against the Dodgers when they come to town Tuesday night. 

The Cubs won't need a fifth starter in the rotation again until next Saturday, April 27, so that could be a date to circle for a possible Lester return if all continues to go well in the veteran's recovery.

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