CINCINNATI – Three pitches into his first at-bat Sunday in Cincinnati, Addison Russell quickly had strikeout No. 11 in 19 at-bats in his five big-league games.
But for all his struggles at the plate his first week in the majors, the youngest player in the National League appeared in no danger of a seat on the bench anytime soon.
In fact, “I think once Addison really gets his feet on the ground, heads up,” said manager Joe Maddon before Sunday’s game.
Fast-forward to the fourth inning and Russell’s second at-bat, in which he quickly fell behind 0-2 with the bases loaded and two out.
Four pitches later: Heads up.
Russell drove a 1-2 pitch to the wall in right-center to clear the bases for the 5-1 lead that held up for a 5-2 victory and a rain-shortened two-game sweep of the Reds.
It closed out a 4-2 road trip against division rivals in which super-prospect Kris Bryant had a big week, Russell had his key moments and the only rookie in the bullpen, Zac Rosscup, picked up two big, late-inning scoreless appearances against the Reds.
“The young players, they’re a little more advanced than most, and that kind of helps bridge the gap of experience,” said Sunday’s winning pitcher, Jake Arrieta (3-1), who retired the first 11 batters but ran into trouble in the fifth and was able to get through just six innings.
The Cubs have started a pair of rookies in the top four spots of their lineup since Bryant’s debut April 17 (also Jorge Soler), and three in the lineup since Russell debuted Tuesday.
“They’re going to keep getting better. And they’re already good,” Maddon said.
“I’m telling you, he’s going to just keep coming on offensively,” Maddon said.
Russell, 21, said his struggles have been more mental than physical.
“I think my swing’s fine. I’m just missing my pitch right now,” he said. “But it only takes one to get it going.”
That was before the three-run drive. If that was the “one,” it might not have come at a better time for the soft-spoken second baseman, who makes his Wrigley Field debut Monday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“It’s going to be a pretty cool feeling I think,” said Russell, who expects his parents, fiancée and her parents in attendance. “I’m looking forward to seeing how it is.”
As tough as Baseball America’s No. 3-ranked prospect in the game has found some of the pitching so far in the majors, Maddon seems to be his biggest supporter, making it easier to stay confident, Russell said.
“Especially when you don’t come through in a tight situation, he’s always there to pick you up and let you know everything’s OK,” Russell said.
“It’s not always about just hits,” Maddon said. “His defense has already made a big impact for us.”
None more than Friday’s series opener, when Russell made a spectacular, tone-changing play on speedster Billy Hamilton in the fifth, then added a tough double play in the eighth that helped get the game to extra innings – where the Cubs won in the 11th.
Cubs starter Jon Lester was bedeviled Hamilton in three long, high-pitch innings and trailed 3-2 when Hamilton led off the fifth looking for a third hit.
That’s when Russell dove to his right to snare a hard grounder, then threw in the same motion as he leaped to his feet – one-hopping the throw to first to get a surprised Hamilton on a close play.
Lester then cruised through the rest of his start. The Cubs won in 11 innings.
“I’m just understanding this whole process,” Russell said. “It may be overnight. It may take a few games. It may take a few at-bats. I’m just trying to stay patient and stay with my approach and just believe in my talent.”