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.”