Cubs could have a new Mr. October coming in Addison Russell

Cubs could have a new Mr. October coming in Addison Russell

Addison Russell can stand on his hands, do Ozzie Smith backflips and dance like Michael Jackson. That explosive athleticism allows him to make highlight-reel plays on defense — running, sliding, leaping — and profile like a middle-of-the-order hitter.

At the age of 22, Russell also has this incredible sense of calm in the batter’s box, an inherent quality that could turn him into a Mr. October for the Cubs.

Russell did it again with the bases loaded on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, lifting the two-out, two-run, go-ahead single into shallow left in the seventh inning of a 5-4 win over the San Francisco Giants. A quiet kid couldn’t help showing his emotions, pumping his fist as he ran toward first base and the crowd of 38,536 started shaking.

“I feel pretty confident there,” Russell said. “It’s more of a mental at-bat, so I just try to take my time. Just take a deep breath and just try to put the ball in play.”

Cubs players almost never wear Cubs gear outside of the workplace, but Russell is so young that he actually wore a white throwback Cubs hat out of the postgame clubhouse, like it was an updated version of the letterman’s jacket.

The Cubs can thank Jeff Samardzija and Billy Beane for their franchise shortstop and future MVP candidate on an All-Star infield already anchored at the corners with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Honestly, Russell couldn’t have envisioned his career going any better than it has since Theo Epstein’s front office pulled off that blockbuster Fourth of July trade with the Oakland A’s in 2014.

“I’m very happy that the Cubs organization gave me the opportunity,” Russell said. “I definitely wanted to take full advantage of it. And now that I’ve put my foot in and kind of made a splash in the big leagues, I’m just trying to keep pushing it.”

The Cubs made Samardzija work during his first Wrigley Field start in a road uniform, scoring three quick runs and forcing him to throw 47 pitches in the first inning. This has been an up-and-down first season of a five-year, $90 million contract for Samardzija and the Giants (72-61) — and this game would be no different.

Samardzija recovered to throw three scoreless innings and escape with a no-decision, leaving him on a pace for a good-but-not-great season (11-9, 4.06 ERA, projected 30-plus starts and 200 innings). And a Giants team that had the best record in the majors at the All-Star break — and has been baseball’s worst group in the second half — still finds itself right in the middle of playoff contention.

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In Russell, the Cubs have a dangerous postseason hitter who’s already put up 19 homers and 88 RBIs this year. Remember, Russell missed last year’s National League Championship Series with a strained hamstring. Not that one rookie’s presence alone would have beaten the New York Mets and their power pitching and reversed a four-game sweep, but any talk about the lineup’s year-over-year improvement will have to include Russell’s emergence.

“I think I’m still developing, so there’s going to be some upside,” Russell said. “Especially with the young core that we have here, it’s going to be pretty good moving forward.”

With Samardzija knocked out early, Russell got jammed and still won his matchup against right-hander Cory Gearrin, the fifth of six relievers Giants manager Bruce Bochy used out of an expanded September bullpen. Russell notched his 11th game-winning RBI this season (10th at Wrigley Field) and finished with his team-leading 25th multi-RBI game.

“It’s the same Addie,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “That’s what makes him great in those situations — he’s the same guy. That consistency plays really big in those big situations. If you get too heightened, that’s when you make mistakes you wouldn’t normally make.

“He’s just been extremely clutch. And at home, I mean, you might as well walk him with the bases loaded. He’s been that good at getting those big hits for us.”

Russell is now 8-for-18 (.444) with 23 RBIs in bases-loaded situations this year, helping the Cubs chop their magic number to clinch the division down to 15.

“He has that nose for the RBI,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s working good at-bats. He’s not just chasing and opening up his strike zone. He’s really maturing offensively.

“He’s got extremely strong hands (and) he’s really strong from the fingertips to the elbows. That’s what you look for in really good hitters.

“Still, think about him in two or three years.”

The thought crossed Zobrist’s mind when he reported to Arizona, coming off a World Series run with the Kansas City Royals and meeting his new shortstop.

“In spring training, I think I told somebody that he’s a potential MVP type of guy,” Zobrist said with a laugh. “We got a couple different guys like that in this clubhouse, obviously. But I think he’s got the speed, the glove, the bat, the power — everything you kind of have to have to be that electric player. And he’s only going to get better. As long as he can stay healthy, the sky’s the limit.”

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season. 

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Much has been made about Wednesday night's brawl between the Marlins and Braves, which started when Braves young star Ronald Acuna was nailed in the elbow with a 99 mph fastball from Jose Urena. The strangest part of the whole situation was that it seemed like Urena was unprovoked by Acuna or any of the Braves players prior to plunking the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.  

The ever wise Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was asked about the incident prior to Thursday's game, making it clear he felt plays like these needed to leave the game entirely. 

It was announced Thursday afternoon that Urena would be suspended just 6 games for intentionally throwing Acuna, which means the Marlins starter will likely only miss one game for trying to hurt Acuna. The good news is that Acuna did not sustain any serious injuries, but Joe Maddon is right there is no reason for people to be hurling nearly triple-digit fastballs at players. Whether provoked or not, intentionally throwing at players is something that needs to be phased out of the game, and its safe to assume Maddon would agree.