As the Cubs head to the South Side Wednesday night for Game 3 of Crosstown, they sit one-half game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a season-high five games above .500.

But things could've been a lot different if not for Addison Russell.

The "what-if" game is a popular one among sports fans, especially around the water cooler or in the local bar. 

Joe Maddon plays that game only on rare occasions and while he didn't fully head down that path this past weekend, he did acknowledge the important role Russell and Willson Contreras have played in saving the Cubs' season.

Maddon's squad has burst out to a 9-2 start to the second half of 2017. And when asked about the team's 6-0 road trip coming out of the break, Maddon pointed to Russell's game-winning homer in the ninth inning of the first game in Baltimore — the game that started this hot stretch — and Contreras' game-saving block on a ball in the dirt in the ninth inning of the first game in Atlanta.

"That first night still, giving up that lead and then that home run by Addy, that was a real seminal moment potentially for the entire season," Maddon said. "I talked about it in Atlanta, the block by Contreras. Just two significant plays that have occurred on that recent trip.

"That could've turned that into a 4-2 trip as opposed to a 6-0 trip. Addy's homer and that block by Willson. Check out that block from Willson. It was a breaking ball from [closer Wade Davis] and it wasn't going good. It was not going good at that moment. Those are two plays on that trip that really stood out to me."

 

The Russell homer was key because the Cubs had burst out of the break — with freshly-acquired pitcher Jose Quintana in tow — with an 8-0 lead after the top of the third inning, but Mike Montgomery and the Cubs bullpen had allowed the Orioles back into the game. After Koji Uehara served up the tying home run in the bottom of the eighth, Russell lined a one-out shot over the left-centerfield fence off Brad Brach in the top of the ninth.

In Atlanta, Contreras' block came with the tying run on third base as Davis eventually secured the nail-biting save in a 4-3 Cubs victory.

Had the Cubs blown the lead in either game, it would've been a tough pill to swallow mentally for a team that struggled to a 43-45 record in the first half. Of course, Contreras' red-hot bat (.341 AVG, 1.133 OPS, 5 HR, 15 RBI since the Break) has helped those victories hold up.

Everybody had been looking for that "seminal moment" around the Cubs for the entire first half of the season. There are still more than two months left in the season, but if the Cubs truly have turned the corner, maybe it did all start on the field with Russell's homer.

"When the manager says at a certain point, the season completely turned on a good note for the team and you're part of that, that's a huge compliment, especially coming from Joe Maddon," Russell said. "Joe has a pretty good reason behind everything that he says. In that situation, just trying to put the barrel on the ball. 

"Get in position to have the other guys knock me in and get on base. That's kinda my goal. It's a huge complimient that he said that. I'm gonna have to ask him a little more about that."

While the Cubs' season may have turned around on Russell's shot to left center on July 14, he had actually started his own personal turnaround more than a month prior.

Since June 11, Russell has hit .291 with an .888 OPS in 35 games, collected 17 extra-base hits (11 doubles, six homers) and 15 RBI.

After a trying couple of months to start 2017 — both on a personal and professional level — Russell's season line looks very similar to last year's total. He has the same batting average (.238) and his slugging percentage is only two points off (.415 compared to .417 last season). The on-base percentage is lower (.304 compared to .321 in 2016) as Russell's walk rate is down, but the 23-year-old shortstop is proving that his slow start is in the past.

The confidence of a big, possibly season-saving home run could help give him a boost, as well.

"[Maddon] kind of gets a sense of how I go about my business and how I go about my game in general," Russell said. "Maybe he saw something that was ready to come out and just go with that the rest of the season."