Cubs

Cubs: Addison Russell knows he won't figure it all out overnight

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Cubs: Addison Russell knows he won't figure it all out overnight

Addison Russell isn't expecting to be playing at an All-Star level already.

The Cubs' "other" top prospect is still only 21 years old and knows his game is a work in progress as he embarks on his second week in the big leagues, including his first series at Wrigley Field.

Russell is hitting just .136 through his first five games, striking out 12 times in 22 at-bats without drawing a walk.

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But he came through with arguably the biggest hit of the weekend in Cincinnati. Russell lined a bases-loaded, two-out double to right-center in the fourth inning Sunday, driving in three and lifting the Cubs to a 5-2 victory and a two-game sweep of the Reds.

"It's just a stepping stone, I believe," Russell said. "I just need to capitalize on that and bring it into next game and we'll see where we go from there."

Russell struck out six times over the weekend and that double was the only hit he had. He mentioned he was having trouble with the backdoor sinker and the way big-leaguers are pitching him.

"These are adjustments that I'm going to have to make day-to-day as I get more familiar with the pitchers," Russell said. "I haven't faced big-league pitching before, obviously, but it's just something I have to watch film of and take notes on."

Manager Joe Maddon and the Cubs like the way Russell has contributed even when he hasn't been hitting - namely playing great defense at second base, a position he just moved to only a few games before his call-up after spending his whole career as a shortstop.

Russell made a fantastic diving play in Friday's game, robbing Billy Hamilton of a hit and potentially saving a run as Hamilton wreaked havoc on the basepaths all weekend long. That play impressed Maddon, who feels Russell will only keep coming on offensively as he gets more at-bats under his belt.

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Maddon also made sure to remind everybody that Russell is still just 21 years old.

"He's fine," Maddon said. "How about the way he's playing defense? People focus on hits. It's not just about hits, folks. If you're gonna play that game, you're gonna lose a lot.

"You gotta catch it. He's a very good baserunner. There's all kinds of things he can do to help us win a game and he's doing it."

Russell's big hit Sunday made an impression on veteran starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, who got the win thanks to Russell's clutch stroke.

"Russell came up big for us," Arrieta said. "Those are things he's going to be able to do more often the more he gets comfortable here. You watch his at-bats, he's had some at-bats where he looks a little uncertain.

"But at the same time, the next time he comes up, he's putting some great swings on the ball. Those are things we expect. Some bumps and bruises along the way, but at the same time, quality at-bats. And that's exactly what he's been able to do."

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Russell said he's feeling the expected excitement in advance of his first series at home in a baseball cathedral undergoing restoration. He said he can't wait for the atmosphere around Wrigley Field, but knows he still has to keep his head on the ground and try to avoid getting caught up in the moment.

"I'm just understanding this whole process," Russell said. "It's not gonna be made overnight. It may take a few games or a few at-bats. I'm just trying to stay patient and stay with my approach and just believe in my talent."

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Offensive production is very much judged in a "what have you done for me lately" manner.

And by that measure, the Cubs offense is just fine and there's no need to tinker.

However, overall, this lineup has weaknesses, including second base (Cubs rank 21st in MLB with .675 OPS from their second basemen) and center field (19th in MLB with .698 OPS). Before the trade deadline hits, it seems apparent Theo Epstein's front office will add another hitter of some sort to augment this offense. 

But what if the Cubs had an in-house solution?

Victor Caratini had another big game Sunday — going 2-for-3 with a sacrifice fly RBI and his only out was a 109.1 mph liner to left field — and is now hitting .301 on the season with a .383 on-base percentage and .505 slugging percentage.

Caratini wasn't initially scheduled to be in the Cubs lineup Sunday, but with Willson Contreras nursing a sore foot, he got the call and continued to do what he's done all year — play very solid defense behind the plate with quality production at the dish. 

Between Caratini's emergence this season and Contreras' huge bounceback year, Cubs catchers are pacing baseball in OPS, average, OBP, SLG, runs and RBI and rank second in homers and hits.

So with Contreras' ability to play the outfield, will the Cubs try to find ways to get both Caratini and Contreras in the starting lineup at the same time in search of more consistent offense?

"We haven't talked about that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after Sunday's game. "We have a lot of guys who have to be in the lineup when things are rolling properly. I haven't looked at that right now, honestly."

Maddon conceded that as a switch-hitter, Caratini is still utilized almost exclusively as a left-handed hitter. The second-year player is hitting .556 with a homer and a double from the right side this season, but that's come in only 10 plate appearances.

Maddon also admitted the best way to get both catchers in the lineup at the same time is if there's an injury or a natural day off for a regular player. For example, Contreras played a game in right field in Pittsburgh before the All-Star Break while Caratini started behind the plate with both Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward nursing minor injuries.

Caratini has also drawn some starts at first base over the last couple years when Anthony Rizzo is either ailing or getting a day off. 

But beyond that, it doesn't appear as if we're gonna see Contreras and Caratini as cohorts in the starting lineup on even a semi-regular basis.

"Maybe part of the reason they're both playing so well or Victor's hitting as well as he is or playing as well as he is is based on the amount of usage," Maddon said. "Everybody sees a guy do well and all of a sudden, that immediately indicates he should play more often. Maybe just playing the right amount."

Jose Quintana delivers as Cubs sweep Pirates: 'He doesn't get enough credit'

Jose Quintana delivers as Cubs sweep Pirates: 'He doesn't get enough credit'

The Cubs have made a trademark out of having a strong second half, and after beating the Pirates 8-3 Sunday, they completed the sweep in their first series since the all-star break and look on their way to putting more space in the NL Central between themselves and the other four teams.

But through the first three innings, the Cubs and starter Jose Quintana looked more like they were going to let the third game of this series get away.

Quintana held the Pirates scoreless in the first two innings, but then in the third he gave up three consecutive singles, threw a wild pitch, allowed a sacrifice fly, and gave up a double, undoing the 1-0 lead the Cubs had established in the second inning on Robel Garcia's double.

But the difference in Sunday's game was how Quintana pitched after that. He tossed three more scoreless innings, completing a 90-pitch quality start and even contributed an RBI single in the fourth.

"He always goes out there and he competes. He’s so focused," Kris Bryant said of Quintana after the game. "He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does."

Leading up to Quintana's single, Garcia hit a two-out double and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle opted to walk David Bote to get Quintana to the plate for what seemed like a sure out. Instead, Quintana poked Trevor Williams' four-seam fastball to right field, allowing Garcia to score from second and trim Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2.

Quintana had already thrown a scoreless top of the fourth inning, but he gave two more after his RBI single. The hit was a timely confidence boost.

"Felt great, finally to get the base hit," Quintana said. "So excited."

This was Quintana's fifth career RBI and first since 2017, and it may have helped catapult the rest of the offense. The Cubs would score three more runs in the fifth inning to take the lead, and then added some cushion with another three in the sixth.

"Literally, when Q got that hit, Tony goes, 'homer right here,'" Jason Heyward joked after the game.

It wasn't Quintana who got the home run, but Heyward was the one to give the Cubs the lead with his own two-run homer in the fifth after Victor Caratini's sacrifice fly had scored Bryant to tie the game earlier that inning.

"We have fun with that," Heyward said of Rizzo's joking. "But we pull for them obviously because they’re out there pitching their ass off. They want to keep the game close, and sometimes they need to pick themselves up too."

Quintana's last three innings on the mound kept his team in the game. He started the fourth with a walk to Elias Diaz and then did not allow another baserunner until Corey Dickerson's one-out single in the sixth.

"I kept throwing my pitches and believing in my stuff and waiting for our offense to come back in the game, and they did really well," Quintana said. "Always in my mind was they can take more runs, so I wanted to keep it there and wait for our hitters to get back in the game. They did great work. It’s a really good feeling around us right now."

One of the keys to a strong second half for the Cubs is getting more wins like Sunday's. Bryant said after the game that it's important to get a few wins that you shouldn't, like one when the team is down 3-1 halfway through the game. And especially in the last game of a three-game set where the Cubs had already won the first two. With the series win safely secured, it would be easy to let up and drop the final game, but Quintana's timely hit and good pitching in the second half of his outing helped make the difference.

"As soon as he hits his knock, he pitched really well after that," Joe Maddon said. "He got better after the knock."

Quintana might struggle to live up to the expectations of coming from across town in a trade two years ago that cost two darling prospects, but it's worth noting that the average ERA in the National League is 4.39, and after Sunday's win, Quintana's is down to 4.21. If he's the team's back-of-the-rotation starter, that'll do just fine.

He's very capable of stringing together quality starts and pitching like the team's ace, like he has over his last three outings with three straight quality starts, but there are also stretches like his run from May 26 to June 22 where he lost six starts in a row and his ERA climbed from 3.73 to 4.50.

Either way, if Quintana makes more of his starts like Sunday's, the Cubs are in very good position to continue their yearly trend of winning in the second half of the season.

 

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