Is Addison Russell, by the tender age of 23, the greatest home-run hitter in Cubs history?
Stay with me here. No, really.
The shortstop broke out of a 1-for-25 playoff slump last October with a two-run blast that busted open a must-win Game 4 of the National League Championship Series in Los Angeles. He hit a grand slam in Cleveland that propelled the Cubs into Game 7 of the World Series. And just last Wednesday in St. Louis, he delivered the three-run smash that put the Cubs ahead 3-1 in the seventh inning of a division clincher.
Three big, big flies. Dream shots, even. Stick those in your résumé reviewer and smoke ’em.
“Confidence, man,” Russell said as the Cubs celebrated in the visitors’ clubhouse at Busch Stadium. “Those home runs give me a lot of confidence when I think about them. It definitely increases my confidence going into the postseason.”
Beginning with Friday’s Game 1 of the division series at the Nationals, Russell would like nothing more than to hit the ground raking. It would be as good a way as any to conclude a season that was marked by domestic-abuse allegations (some uncertainty lingers on that front as his divorce case proceeds) and a foot injury that cost him six weeks of playing time.
Take this for what it’s worth and nothing more: Russell has been smiling a lot more lately, in the clubhouse and on the field. Everyone close to the team has noticed.
“Addison pretty much wears his feelings on his face,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When he’s feeling good about himself, it’s really easy to determine that.”
Given all the ways in which these Cubs have fallen short of last year’s team, including its winning pace and endless mojo — the starting pitching alone has invited concern almost all the way through — Russell’s inability to follow up on an All-Star season with something similar has been a relatively quiet story. The chug to a modest 92 victories has at times been frustrating, but, as the playoffs begin, there’s a clean slate for everyone. Who knows which guy might be the hero of an upset of the Nats? Russell has comported himself of late like a guy who suspects it could be him.
“He’s in a really good place on the field and off the field,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “I think he’s eager to finish strong, and his play has been reflecting that. He’s been really good since coming back off the [disabled list on September 16]. He’s put some work into his personal life and his professional life to get it where he wants to be.
I think he’s in a really good spot.”
There’s something of an elephant in the room when it comes to Russell, and that is the ever-present temptation to compare him with Javy Baez. While Russell was injured and Baez filled in at shortstop day after day, a debate rose among Cubs fans about which guy ought to be holding down the position for years to come. Baez brings obvious advantages, a stronger arm foremost among them.
Maddon and general manager Jed Hoyer have made clear in recent weeks their preference of Russell at shortstop and Baez at second base, which is how the Cubs will enter the playoffs (and, one would assume, next season). Interestingly, Epstein allowed Wednesday for a wider interpretation.
“I just like when they’re both on the field together,” he said. “That’s our best infield defense. I don’t care how they’re lined up. If they’re both on the field together, it’s a lockdown middle infield defensively.”
Russell isn’t as flexible on the subject. He intends to be the shortstop of the Cubs for many years to come, period. Not that he isn’t grateful for the opportunity.
“I’m happy that I’m even in the lineup to produce,” he said. “It’s a great thing. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Especially this time of year.
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