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Russell shining brighter and brighter as Cubs thrive

Shortstop starring both offensively and defensively
MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- So who you got for the National League Most Valuable Player Award? Kris Bryant? Anthony Rizzo?

That's the discussion in taverns all around the Midwest, as well as parts of America outside of Colorado, where Nolan Arenado provides a different take, and the environs near Washington, D.C., where Daniel Murphy is a hot topic.

CHICAGO -- So who you got for the National League Most Valuable Player Award? Kris Bryant? Anthony Rizzo?

That's the discussion in taverns all around the Midwest, as well as parts of America outside of Colorado, where Nolan Arenado provides a different take, and the environs near Washington, D.C., where Daniel Murphy is a hot topic.

Addison Russell isn't on the short list yet, but the way he's going, we could be talking about the Cubs shortstop in NL MVP Award conversations next September.

Russell has been Joe Maddon's Derek Jeter since he was installed as the everyday shortstop a little more than a year ago, and over the past couple of months, he has shown there are also parts of Carlos Correa in his game.

Video: PIT@CHC: Russell rips an RBI single to pad the lead

Madden loves the way Russell continues to develop while playing a major role on a team with World Series aspirations. He says Russell's growth has been exactly what coaches look for in young players, calling him "the perfect example of everything's [gotten] better."

Russell, 22, arrived in Chicago as a second baseman because Maddon wasn't ready to take shortstop away from Starlin Castro. But then he made the decision to switch Russell to shortstop, his natural position, and it was a move that almost instantly helped turn the Cubs into the winningest team in baseball.

They were 58-48 when the Giants arrived for a series at Wrigley Field on Aug. 6, 2015. They rolled to 97 wins and a trip to the NL Championship Series. They've gone 123-64 in regular-season games since the sure-handed Russell took over at short.

Russell has played in 185 games at shortstop and has committed only 15 errors. FanGraphs credits him with 17 Defensive Runs Saved this year, giving him a share of the Major League lead at the position with the Giants' Brandon Crawford.

While there was some talk that Russell hadn't earned his election to the NL All-Star team -- after all, he was hitting only .237 with a fairly pedestrian .731 OPS -- he has elevated his game the past two months. He's hit 11 home runs and driven in 44 runs in his past 49 games, putting him on pace to finish the season with 23 homers and 104 RBIs.

Video: CHC@SD: Russell mashes two-run homer to left-center

Those totals get your attention, especially from a guy who was in the Arizona Fall League less than two years ago. Russell was so inexperienced last October that the pressure could have gotten to him, and it almost did.

Maddon said he expected the atmosphere to be like "Game 7 of the World Series" in Pittsburgh for last season's NL Wild Card Game, and he wasn't disappointed.

"We got to the field, and there was already a full stadium," Russell said this week. "Their fans were rowdy. They were into every pitch, which was awesome. It was exciting. It put us in some pretty challenging situations, which helped [our team] grow. We got the win, so it was a lot of fun."

Making the rounds before the game, hitting coach John Mallee noticed an unusual air around Russell. He seemed tense, not just anxious, as he looked toward the field from the dugout. Mallee offered Russell a quick word of encouragement and some advice: "Don't forget to breathe."

With the Cubs leading 4-0, the Pirates threatened against Jake Arrieta in the sixth inning.

There were runners on first and second with one out when Andrew McCutchen lined a one-hop rocket at Russell (exit velocity: 107 mph). It would have been an easy double play, but the ball got away from Russell, loading the bases and adding to mounting concern on the Cubs' bench.

But when Starling Marte followed with an almost identical missile to short -- this one clocked at 109 mph, according to Statcast™ -- Russell gloved it and underhanded the ball to Castro to start an inning-ending double play.

Video: NL WC: Russell prevents runs with terrific defense

Once Russell was back in the dugout, Mallee asked him what he was thinking after misplaying McCutchen's hard grounder. He said his first thought was "breathe," and then he told himself that he wanted the next hitter, Marte, to hit the ball to him. It was the perfect response to a tough situation.

Russell remembers it clearly.

"Basically, I just looked down at the ground, just kept my composure, took a deep breath," he said. "I told myself, 'Next play. Next play's going to come to you.' Then one or two pitches and Marte hits it even harder, and I ended up making that play ... Sometimes things don't go your way. I had to keep myself calm, look forward to the next play, because it could be the same play. In that case it was. I was prepared, pitch to pitch."

If Maddon or his coaches were worried about how Russell would react on the big stage, it was only because 2015 was their first season with him. They're not likely to worry in future Octobers.

"I'm very confident in my skills," Russell said.

Video: CWS@CHC: Russell belts a grand slam to left-center

Russell, the Athletics' first-round Draft pick in 2012, was acquired from Oakland in a trade for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Over time, that deal may be as significant as ones that Theo Epstein made to get Arrieta from Baltimore and Kyle Hendricks from Texas.

Working with Mallee and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske the past two seasons, Russell has made a pair of adjustments that have helped him hit for power. He added a pronounced leg kick last year and this season has steadily held his hands higher, which is making it easier for him to get to the high fastballs that have held him to a .242 career batting average.

Russell is turning on pitches up in the zone and slamming them into the left-field seats. His blast off the Rockies' Jorge De La Rosa on Aug. 21 cleared the left-field seats at Coors Field, landing an estimated 465 feet from the plate.

Video: CHC@COL: Russell crushes 465-foot home run

Russell was a .301 hitter with a .377 on-base percentage in the Minor Leagues. It's only a matter of time until he brings up his big league totals in those categories.

Almost as much as Bryant and Rizzo, Russell has been turning every game into must-see TV for Cubs fans. Jeter never won an American League MVP Award with the Yankees, and if that winds up being true for Russell as well, you figure he'll settle for the World Series rings.

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com.

 

Chicago Cubs, Addison Russell