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Cubs’ Russell proving All-Star critics wrong

Addison Russell hits his 19th homer of the season Tuesday night, a two-run shot in the fifth that raised his season RBI total to 82.

SAN DIEGO – Barely a month ago in the same city, Addison Russell spent much of his two days in town being asked whether he deserved to be there.

The Cubs young shortstop has spent much of the six weeks since that All-Star appearance answering those questions.

“Like I said [then], just watch me over the course of a year,” Russell said after hitting home run No. 18, becoming the third Cubs shortstop in history to reach 80 RBIs and making one of the most spectacular fielding plays of the season on a diving snare of a 110-mph short hop toward the middle.

“The numbers may not be great or whatever, but I contribute to my team every single day,” he said. “I play my heart out for my team.”

The Cubs envisioned games like that when they traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland to get him in July two years ago as a minor leaguer. Team brass talked about the kid doing these kinds of things well before he debuted early last season.

But nobody saw this much happening so quickly in the big leagues.

He joined Ernie Banks and Roy Smalley Sr. as the only Cubs shortstops in history with 80 RBIs – making it 82 with a two-run homer Tuesday. Even before that 19th homer, his agent Scott Boras pointed out that in the last 40 years, he’s one of only five shortstops as young as 22 to hit at least 18 – joining Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Troy Tulowitzki and the Dodgers’ Corey Seager.

And at this rate he’s certain to be a candidate for a Gold Glove award by this time next month.

“He’s definitely got to be in the conversation – I mean legitimate conversation,” Maddon said. “I know some guys are prolific offensively, but this guy on defense – it’s getting to the point where there’s nobody else like that right now.

“Defensively, it’s as good as [the position is] being played right now.”

Monday’s play made such an impression that manager Joe Maddon before Tuesday’s game presented Russell with a bottle of fine wine they had discussed recently. Maddon wrote on the label: “6-3. Enjoy”

Maddon is enjoying watching Russell take his all-around game to another level since the All-Star criticism.

“I know prior to being selected, that was an issue in a sense,” the manager said. “I’m so proud of him, how he came out and confronted it, in his own way, very quietly. But in a distinguished manner. That’s who he is.”

“And now he’s showing everybody how good he is,” Maddon said.

Maddon, who said he thinks the All-Star experience itself elevated Russell’s play for its intangible impact, had his own impact on Russell’s numbers by moving the 22-year-old into the fifth spot in the order.

Russell, who has said all season he loves batting fifth, has thrived (.286 with a .913 OPS) in that spot. His numbers since the All-Star break are also impressive: .279 with a .516 slugging percentage and .866 OPS (through Monday).

Russell seems especially proud of the RBI production.

“We have guys on our team that get on base, and it’s my job to either get them over or get them in,” he said. “I’ve taken that role, and taken it to heart. I challenge myself whenever I’m in those situations to have some fun, and it is fun.”

“He has a nose for the RBI, man,” Maddon said.

Russell called the huge RBI total a surprise to him. What’s not a surprise to anyone who watched him the second half of last year and in spring training are the home runs.

“Put him in Colorado all the time and this guy would have 25 homers by now,” Maddon said. “He really hits the ball hard and far. He’s really strong from the fingertips to the elbows, and that’s what you look for from really good hitters.

“He makes that different sound when he hits the ball. He’s one of those guys. So none of this is surprising.”