Addison Russell spread his arms out wide before taking off his helmet and getting lifted up into his teammates’ arms. The Cubs jumped up and down at Wrigley Field, the mosh pit moving from second base into shallow center.
The crowd roared after Russell blasted the game-winning double off Washington Nationals lefty reliever Matt Grace with two outs in the ninth inning on Tuesday night. It soared out into the gap in right-center field, past Washington centerfielder Denard Span, hitting the grass at the edge of the warning track, rolling into the ivy and bouncing off the brick wall for a 3-2 victory.
“They’re at the top,” Russell said after beating the Nationals with his first walk-off hit at any level of professional baseball. “If we can compete with them, we can compete with anyone. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can compete with anyone. We just got to keep grinding it out.”
The next night, Russell would commit a throwing error that helped create an unearned run the Cubs couldn’t afford to give up when Max Scherzer performs like a $210 million ace with a Cy Young Award on his resume. The Cubs lost 3-0 after splitting two one-run games with the National League’s most talented team on paper.
The Cubs (25-21) are willing to live with the growing pains, knowing they need Russell if they want to make the huge leap you saw last year from the Kansas City Royals, who come into Wrigley Field this weekend as the American League’s defending champs.
“You have to understand this guy just turned 21,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Most of the time, those guys are in Double-A, or even sometimes A-ball, and they’re making all these mistakes. They’re swinging at bad sliders in Davenport.”
Maddon turned to the cameras in Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon and kept rolling: “Which I love Davenport, by the way. Or, say, Salinas, and I do love Salinas. That’s where you make these mistakes. But he’s making them here in front of everybody with cameras and the newspapers.
“Understand, it’s not easy to fight through that at that age with that lack of experience. His mental toughness is really incredible to me, how he’s fought through all these kind of difficult moments for himself. He’s not used to failing. He’s always been the lead bull.
“So as you’re watching him, specifically, and all of our guys blossom, understand where they’re at developmentally. Understand where a lot of guys that age and that experience level are. They’re not here. They’re in some obscure place without the spotlight on them learning their craft. He’s having to do it on the fly here. And he’s doing a great job.”
A natural shortstop, Russell is learning how to play a new position in the big leagues, leading the team with four defensive runs saved, according to the online database at FanGraphs, while also leading all NL second basemen with seven errors.
“He’s extremely talented,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He’s got so much room to grow. And those are things that he’s going to have to go through – and we’re going to have to go through as a team – to get better.”
Russell is also hitting .275 with three homers, eight doubles, eight RBI and a .788 OPS through 25 games in May. Maddon tries to relate to his players by remembering what he was doing at that age. (A fraternity party at Lafayette College would be a good guess.)
“Unbelievable,” pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “He obviously is a talent at 21. God, there’s no chance I’d be doing that.”
“I was in the minors,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “I was down in the ditches, in the bushes, trying to make a name for myself. That’s what I was doing. I sure as hell wasn’t doing what he’s doing right now.
“He’s 21 years old and he’s not just hanging in there. He’s creating himself a nice little niche.”
Hammel had been a piece in last summer’s blockbuster Fourth of July trade with the Oakland A’s. The assumption was the Cubs would get a big-time pitching prospect back in the Jeff Samardzija deal, but Oakland general manager Billy Beane made president of baseball operations Theo Epstein an offer he couldn’t refuse by including Russell.
“When he came up, his first week, he looked like he was just trying not to make waves, playing a little bit tight,” Epstein said. “His swing didn’t have its normal looseness and the bat speed that comes with it. He was a little robotic in the field.
“There comes a point where every player sort of takes a deep breath and relaxes and lets their natural ability come out. You’ve seen more and more from him.”
As much as Scott Boras loves ripping Cubs ownership, the super-agent also made a point to say how much his client has improved since getting traded from Oakland, crediting the organization’s coaches and player-development infrastructure.
“I’ve come pretty far,” Russell said. “There’s still a long ways to go. I’m just trying to get better every day. Just trying to get my early work in, take more swings in the cage. Just keep up my routine and do all the small things that make me ‘me.’
“Each day, it just seems like the game is slowing down, and I want to continue and stay on that process.”
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Russell had 57 career at-bats on the Triple-A level before getting promoted in late April, and then he struck out 12 times in his first five games. He’s learning the angles at second base, the footwork that goes into turning a double play, getting more comfortable moving to his right. He’s diving, popping up and throwing to first base again, which he jokes is his signature move.
Russell has been accountable, answering postgame questions at his locker, and he doesn’t draw attention to himself in the clubhouse.
For someone who entered this season as Baseball America’s No. 3 overall prospect, Russell has managed to fly under the radar – thanks to Kris Bryant – and not believe all the hype.
Whether it’s making highlight-reel plays, or errors on routine groundballs, Russell expects to be the same guy every day. That’s why the Cubs believe he’s one of their untouchable core players.
“It just goes back to maturity,” Russell said. “You’re going to have those games where you do punch out three times, maybe four times. But tomorrow’s a new day. You got to come back with that whole new mindset.”