CHICAGO — At this point, who cares if there really is a clutch gene or if some guys just have those years when they get their hits in big moments?
It doesn’t matter what side of that debate you fall on because there’s no convincing Chicago Cubs fans that 22-year-old shortstop Addison Russell doesn’t have something special going when the game is on the line. His 88 RBIs in his first full season in the big leagues tell you everything you need to know.
“The ability to handle the clutch situation and get that big hit when it matters is well beyond his years,” teammate Ben Zobrist said after the Cubs’ 5-4 win over the San Francisco Giants on Thursday night. “At home, you might as well walk him with the bases loaded. He’s been that good.”
It wasn’t a walk, but a base hit with the bases loaded that brought home the tying and go-ahead runs in the seventh inning, as Russell helped erase a one-run deficit the Cubs had been facing for almost six innings. His 59 runs driven in at home this season are better than every National League player, except Nolan Arenado, who plays in hitter-friendly Coors Field. That includes teammates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.
“It’s pretty impressive, I think,” Russell said. “It surprised me. I wouldn’t have 88 if it wasn’t for those guys getting on.”
Getting on is one thing; getting them home is another. Remember, Russell only recently moved up in the lineup, making his RBI total even more impressive. Some other notable marks:
• Russell has 37 RBIs since the All-Star break, third most in the NL.
• Russell has 28 RBIs with two outs and men on base this season, just two behind the NL leaders.
• Russell is tied for the NL lead at 23 RBIs with the bases loaded this season.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon thinks he knows why Russell has taken off. It has to do with confidence.
“Making the All-Star Game and being in that group in San Diego has really helped catapult his second half,” Maddon said.
“After the All-Star Game, the body felt great,” he said. “I wanted to prove to myself I [could] finish up strong. I think that I’m on my way to doing that.”
If you recall, Russell was slighted by some fans and media members who felt he didn’t belong at the All-Star Game, but he has proven at the plate and in the field that he is one of the best shortstops in the NL.
“Addy is younger than everyone else,” Zobrist said in comparing Russell to others he has played with. “The other guys that were that good were college players. [Evan] Longoria or [David] Price. Addy is younger than those guys were.”
Russell and Corey Seager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, along with Trevor Story of the Rockies, might battle for the title of best shortstop in the NL in the coming years, but right now there’s no denying how important Russell has been at the plate for the Cubs. Jason Heyward has struggled for much of the year, while the team lost slugger Kyle Schwarber in the first week of the season. Russell has picked up the slack.
“He’s growing up as a major league baseball player,” Maddon said. “His confidence could not be higher.”
Russell sounds like he has grown up, as he took a mature approach to his first plate appearance against Giants reliever Cory Gearrin in the key seventh inning. As usual for Russell, things slowed down.
“I wanted to see what he had and make my reads on that,” he said.
Two pitches later, the Cubs had the lead and Russell was two RBIs closer to reaching 100.
“Same Addy,” Zobrist said with a shake of his head. “If you get too heightened, that’s when you make mistakes you would not normally make.”
As for the clutch debate, Russell might be the best example of someone who raises his game in the most important moments. Considering he is tied for fifth in the NL in RBIs, despite ranking 67th in batting average, something must be clicking for Russell at the right time.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “Hopefully, I can keep it going.”