Cubs

Remember when the Cubs had a shortstop controversy?

Remember when the Cubs had a shortstop controversy?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Flashback Friday to that time Chicago was torn on who should be the Cubs' starting shortstop.

That was fun, wasn't it?

Now, there's no question.

While Javy Baez went hitless in the NLDS (in 14 at-bats), Addison Russell powered the Cubs to victory with four RBI in Game 5, including the big blow - a two-out, two-run double off Max Scherzer to give the Cubs the lead for good.

To be sure, the Cubs don't advance to the NLCS without contributions from both Russell and Baez, with the latter changing several NLDS games with his defense and incredible instincts.

But Russell has made the shortstop "controversy" completely obsolete and it seems laughable there ever was one. (In the mind of the Cubs coaching staff and front office, there never was.)

2017 was a trying season for Russell, both on the field off.

But he will once again get a chance to showcase his skills on the highest stage the National League has to offer, doing so at Dodger Stadium where he busted out of a woeful postseason slump last October and keyed the Cubs' charge to their first World Series in 71 years.

Following Thursday/Friday's big game, Russell is now tied with Anthony Rizzo for the all-time postseason RBI lead (18) in Cubs franchise history.

Russell's propensity for the clutch hit was already legendary after the drought-breaking 2016 season (remember that grand slam in World Series Game 6?) and he's found his groove again as summer turned to fall this year.

The young shortstop delivered a clutch three-run homer on the day the Cubs clinched the division in St. Louis in late September. He also had another big three-run double in that series and added to his resume with the fifth-inning double off Scherzer

In the sixth inning of Game 5, Russell came through again, lining a ball into the left-center field gap that Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth couldn't get a glove on, resulting in a key insurance run while the dishevled Cubs bullpen tried to keep Washington's relentless offense at bay.

"The swing feels fine; the mentality's fine," a champagne-and-beer-soaked Russell said in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park early Friday morning. "The body's feeling great. It's just staying with the process and mentally getting stronger each day."

Russell looks nothing like the player who struggled with routine throws from the shortstop position and expanded the zone far too often at the plate in the first few months of 2017.

Manager Joe Maddon has talked several times over the last month about how Russell's and swagger is back.

And just in case he needed any other confidence boost, Russell is now returning the scene where he helped the Cubs end a 21-inning postseason scoreless streak with a long home run to right-center off Julio Urias in Game 4 of the 2016 NLCS.

When asked if he is ready to head back to Dodger Stadium, Russell looked up, ignored the Budweiser still cascading off his head after a fresh dose from Kyle Schwarber, and smirked.

"Oh yeah."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.