Russell's all-around play key to Cubs' fortunes

Russell's all-around play key to Cubs' fortunes

CHICAGO -- The Cubs' pair of Most Valuable Player candidates, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, will get most of the attention when the National League Division Series opens on Friday at Wrigley Field (FS1, 8 p.m. CT), but the X-factor on the team may be shortstop Addison Russell.

Russell has thrived since he was moved up in the batting order, and finished the season third on the team in RBIs with a career-high 95, behind Rizzo (109) and Bryant (102). If there was an award for Cubs second-half MVP, Russell would be in serious consideration after driving in 44 runs since the All-Star break.

• Russell and the Astros' Carlos Correa are the first shortstops to total 95 RBIs in their age-22-or-younger season since Troy Tulowitzki did so at age 22 in 2007 with the Rockies, when he drove in 99. Correa finished the season with 96 RBIs. Russell is the first Cubs shortstop to reach 95 RBIs since Hall of Famer Ernie Banks drove in 117 in 1960.

Game Date Matchup Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 7 CHC 1, SF 0 video
Gm 2 Oct. 8 CHC 5, SF 2 video
Gm 3 Oct. 10 SF 6, CHC, 5 (13) video
Gm 4 Oct. 11 CHC 6, SF 5 video

• Russell is the second Cub to reach the 20-homer mark in his age-22-or-younger season, joining Hall of Famer Ron Santo, who hit 23 home runs during his age-21 season in 1961.

"He has a nose for the RBI," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Hitting [fifth], he seems to have taken to that well. He's getting good at-bats, not opening up his strike zone. He's maturing offensively."

Maddon moved Russell up in early July to take the pressure off Jason Heyward, and the young shortstop didn't blink.

"It's given me a lot of confidence," Russell said. "It puts me in these situations where it's not forcing me to produce, but I feel I want to produce. I want to step up in the situations. It's fun, overall, and my confidence is up right now. It makes me happy whenever Joe puts me up there in the lineup. Hopefully, he believes that I can knock in some runs for us."

Russell got a huge confidence boost when he was voted in as the starting shortstop for the NL All-Star team. And his defense has been stellar, which Maddon also appreciates. After Russell made an amazing play in San Diego, the Cubs' manager presented him with a bottle of wine -- appropriately titled "Justification" -- and started to tout the shortstop for the Gold Glove Award.

"He's definitely got to be in the conversation, legitimate conversation," Maddon said of Russell. "This guy on defense, it's getting to the point where there's no one else like that right now."

Last year, Russell injured his hamstring in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Cardinals and was not available for the NL Championship Series. The Cubs were swept by the Mets in the NLCS. This season, Maddon has made sure to give the shortstop a breather now and then to keep his legs fresh and keep him healthy. The Cubs need Russell.

"He's just grown -- he's growing and growing," Maddon said. "That's the beauty of development. The biggest thing I used to focus on in the Minor Leagues is what did a guy look like in April, and what does he look like in August. You see the development. He's a perfect example -- everything's gotten better."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.