LOS ANGELES – When Joe Maddon talked about trying “to rearrange the chairs a little bit,” the Cubs manager didn’t explicitly finish the Titanic metaphor for this National League Championship Series – or seriously consider benching Addison Russell and moving Javier Baez to shortstop to jumpstart what had been baseball’s best team during the regular season.
The Cubs never really had a shortstop controversy, even as Theo Epstein’s front office held onto and collected middle infielders during the rebuilding years. Maddon loved Russell’s reliability and no-chrome style from the first moment he saw him fielding groundballs during spring training last year.
If the Cubs really are going to follow Maddon’s lead – and play the same game on Oct. 19 that they played on April 19 and July 19 – then you have to trust the players who helped you pile up 103 wins and get to this point against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Right now, Addison and Javy up the middle is our best chance, I think, to win as we set up the middle defense,” Maddon said before Wednesday’s Game 4 at Dodger Stadium.
Defense may win championships, but the Cubs absolutely needed a jolt to their offense, and Russell delivered with one electrifying swing during a 10-2 victory that tied this best-of-seven series at 2-2 and guaranteed at least one more night of October baseball at Wrigley Field this year.
“This guy had 90-something RBI, 20-something homers,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “That means he can hit. They don’t sell those at Walgreens.”
Russell certainly hadn’t been the only reason the Dodgers put together back-to-back shutouts, the scoreless streak extending to 21 innings on Wednesday night at Chavez Ravine. It’s not like Russell was the only Cubs hitter who struggled to track Clayton Kershaw’s fastball or felt off-balance against Rich Hill’s curveball or made slow adjustments against those left-handed looks.
But the sense of urgency in the playoffs always screams: Do something!
Russell had been in a 1-for-24 offensive spiral during these playoffs. Baez has been a breakout October star, going 9-for-27 with a division-series-shifting home run off San Francisco Giant Johnny Cueto and making one spectacular defensive play after another. Ben Zobrist – one of the game’s most versatile defenders and this team’s most accomplished postseason hitter – can always move back to second base from the outfield.
That faith in Russell paid huge dividends in the fourth inning, when he slammed a 94-mph Julio Urias fastball over the right-center field wall for a two-run homer, a 4-0 lead and some breathing room for a team constantly getting questions about the pressure on a franchise that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908.
“It’s definitely a sigh of relief to have a big night,” said Russell, who pumped his fist after that homer and went 3-for-5. “My confidence was still there. I feel like I’ve been seeing the ball well, taking some pretty good swings, so I definitely wasn’t panicking. I was a little more frustrated than anything else.”
Russell drove a ball to the warning track in left field in his first at-bat against Urias, who at the age of 20 might be the game’s next great left-handed pitcher. Russell lifted another ball to the warning track in center field against Los Angeles reliever Luis Avilan in the seventh inning, showing the power switch might be getting flipped after lowering his hands in his swing.
Russell also became the catalyst to a five-run sixth inning, hustling on the groundball he hit toward the right side of the infield, rushing Dodgers second baseman Kike Hernandez and forcing a wild throw to first that allowed him to take an extra base.
As Maddon would say: Respect 90. Even if Russell looked a little lost at times – with Jason Heyward pinch-hitting for him – the manager still believes in the 22-year-old who finished tied for the major-league lead with 19 defensive runs saved at shortstop.
The Cubs identified bumping Starlin Castro off shortstop as a turning point during last year’s 97-win campaign, and they certainly missed Russell’s steady presence when a hamstring injury sidelined him during the 2015 NLCS the New York Mets swept.
If going to the All-Star Game for the first time – and hanging around the best players in the world this summer – helped boost Russell’s self-esteem, could a bad October experience hinder one of the franchise’s cornerstone players?
“I thought that the All-Star Game appearance did absolutely accelerate his confidence,” Maddon said. “But regardless of what happens right now, I don’t think it’s going to detract from next year. He’s way too young. He’s got so many adjustments to be made over the next several years.
“Javy’s been rising to the occasion, but we got a lot of young guys, man, and there is still a lot of time – years to come – for them to continue to get better. So I don’t think any negative experience right now is going to linger. I don’t.”
The Cubs always appreciated Russell’s old soul and chill personality, the attributes they believe will help them get back to the World Series for the first time since 1945.
“Like I said, I really wasn’t panicking,” Russell said. “Really wasn’t nervous. It was just (more) my teammates know what I have to bring to the plate – and I definitely want to display that here in the postseason.
“But I’m just excited about playing and happy to have my teammates here, rooting me on. They didn't doubt me for one second.”