Prior to Friday's game against the Pirates, the Cubs recalled Russell from Iowa and optioned Almora to the same affiliate. Russell's arrival came one day after Chicago's middle infield played a role in the ninth-inning meltdown that culminated in a walk-off grand slam by Phillies star Bryce Harper. Almora's exit stems from persistent struggles at the plate.
"Whenever you do it, nobody's liking that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of sending players down. "The player doesn't like it. I don't like having to deliver the message. But I've been through it enough to know that at the other side of it, when they come back, they almost always will concede that it was the right thing to do. I feel good about it."
Russell said as much shortly after arriving at PNC Park on Friday.
"I feel like I got back to the original me," Russell said. "Playing on a consistent basis, I think, had a lot to do with it. I was able to hone in on my approach and just play the type of baseball that I know how to play."
Before being sent to Triple-A in late July, Russell was slumping offensively, making uncharacteristic mistakes in the field and the infielder admitted he had trouble remembering the team's signs. In 15 games with Iowa, he hit .333 with four homers, four doubles, 13 RBIs and a 1.060 OPS in 63 plate appearances while mostly playing shortstop.
During Thursday's 7-5 loss to the Phillies, shortstop David Bote -- filling in for Javier Baez (ill) -- made a fielding error that helped set a six-run Philadelphia rally in motion. Ian Happ, manning second base, also had two singles nick off his glove on tough plays up the middle. Russell provides a true backup for Baez at short and is also a plus defender at second.
"I think he realizes there was some benefit in [going to Triple-A]," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said on Friday, "and playing every day, taking a deep breath and knowing you're going to be in the lineup, and knowing you're going to get your five plate appearances, and knowing there's not the same pressure."
That is also what the Cubs want for the 25-year-old Almora, who has hit .243/.275/.396 in 114 games this season. Based on Almora's career track record, Maddon hoped he could be a weapon against lefty pitching. In 108 plate appearances versus left-handers this season, however, Almora hit just .214 with a .532 OPS and three extra-base hits.
After acquiring Nicholas Castellanos to play mostly right field, Jason Heyward shifted to center and began taking some of Almora's innings. Happ, who has also hit well of late for the Cubs, is another option for center when he is not at second or in the corner outfield spots.
"With Castellanos coming in and with Happ performing and [Almora's] struggles against lefties this year, I think there was going to be fewer at-bats against left-handed pitching," Hoyer said. "He just needs to get every day at-bats and get on track. This year's been a little bit of a struggle for him. And getting every day at-bats in Iowa for a few weeks before Sept. 1 [when rosters expand] I think is a good thing."
Kintzler returns, Kimbrel soon
The Cubs' group of wounded relievers was reduced by one on Friday.
Prior to Friday night's 3-2 loss to the Pirates, right-hander Brandon Kintzler was activated from the 10-day injured list after spending the minimum amount of time on the shelf with right pectoral inflammation. The Cubs optioned righty James Norwood to Triple-A Iowa to clear a spot in the relief corps.
Kintzler entered the loss with a one-run lead in the ninth inning and blew the save, facing five batters and issuing three straight walks (including an intentional walk to Josh Bell) before allowing Kevin Newman's game-winning single.
Closer Craig Kimbrel (10-day IL, right knee) threw a bullpen session on Thursday with no issues, but the Cubs are still discussing his next step, whether it be an activation or a Minor League rehab assignment. Setup man Steve Cishek (left hip), who is eligible for activation from the IL on Tuesday, is scheduled to throw off a mound Saturday.
• Utility man Ben Zobrist went 0-for-3 with a walk with Triple-A Iowa on Thursday in the latest game of his Minor League assignment. Zobrist will remain with Iowa this weekend before the Cubs convene early next week to discuss the next steps in his comeback attempt.
• Utility man Daniel Descalso (10-day IL, left ankle) is scheduled to begin a Minor League rehab assignment with Triple-A Iowa on Saturday.
• Reliever Brandon Morrow (60-day IL, right elbow) faced hitters earlier this week at the Cubs' complex in Arizona, but there is still no timetable for his return to game action.