Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell has been more than just a sensation in his second season as a member of manager Joe Maddon's lineup. He's been nothing short of a spark plug for Northsiders.
Take Game 6 of the 2016 World Series, then a must-win matchup against their opponent, the Cleveland Indians, who were then leading the series 3-2 at home at Progressive Field. The Indians had pitcher Josh Tomlin at the mound – the starter who had a great outing along with setup man Andrew Miller, as the two pitchers helped shut out the Cubs in Game 3, 1-0, at Wrigley. But the Indians' first-half series momentum couldn't stop Russell from blowing it wide open.
"The pitcher sent me two borderline pitches," Russell recalls. "I always have to see the ball up to put it in the outfield."
By that point, the Cubs had already forced Indians' manager Terry Francona to retire Tomlin and opt for reliever Dan Otero. Chicago already led 3-0 in the top of the 3rd inning, thanks to a solo homer by Kris Bryant in the 1st, followed by runs scored that inning by Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist. Both of the Cubs' early RBIs were driven in by Russell's centerfield hit. But after setting home plate on fire during his first at-bat, Russell hints that patience, a cool head and a good eye paid off.
"I waited for the pitch and [Otero] left the ball up. It was the pitch I was looking for and I did exactly what I wanted to do with it."
On Otero's third throw, Russell swung his bat, belting the ball into the stands at left-center field. What would end up as a crushing strike that later led to a surprising 9-3 win for the Cubs also became a pendulum swing in the World Series and a rally point for the entire Cubs team.
"At that time it was 3-0," Russell recalls. "And then, rounding the bases I knew it was going to be 7-0. I was screaming "Let's Go!" looking to my teammates in the dugout."
As if the Cubs weren't already stoked enough with that early Game 6 lead, they were hitting again like they had all season, shaking off a slump against the Indians' pitchers that had previously put them down 3-1 in the series. On top of that, Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta was throwing nothing but gems from his start in Game 6.
"I said to my teammates and thought, 'here we are, with the chance to do this thing. Lets run away with it.' And that's exactly what they did. We dug deep."
As any fan or member emeritus of Chicago Cubs teams past will tell you, winning it all, even after a 103-win regular season, wasn't going to be easy. The Cubs' long history – from winning their division yet losing the NLCS both in 1984 and 2003, to losing 102 games just four years ago – could fill a museum with both optimism and heartbreak.
Fast forward to Game 7, a matchup the very next night in which the Cubs took a commanding lead over the Indians early, started off by Dexter Fowler's first at-bat solo homer. The Cubs kept hitting and rallied up to a pivotal 6-3 position in the 6th, only to blow it by the 8th, the inning in which Cleveland tied it up 6-6.
"Heading into the series we really didn't know what kind of team the Indians were. They were a big question mark," Russell says. "We hadn't faced them (in 2016) and our pitchers hadn't faced any of their hitters. All we knew was that they had great pitchers and the key pieces to get into the spot they were in. They're the type of team that hits that clutch hit, and brings in significant runs that make the difference in every ball game".
After Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman had given up an RBI double against Brandon Guyer followed by a two-run homer to Rajai Davis in the 8th, things looked pretty tough for the Cubs yet again. They were an elusive four outs from winning their first world title in 108 years and couldn't close the deal. Luckily Chapman kept it tied in the 9th, and then came a rain delay.
"The 10th inning, we were a little shell-shocked and had to come off the field," Russell says. "Right away (Jason) Hayward told us to gather in the workout room, and Jay-Hey quickly put back into our mind that we pick each other up, and that we'd been down three games before and we've come back." Seems team communication and support did the trick.
"That meeting just rejuvinated us, and put us back in the 10th, swinging the bat and running the bases," the second-year starter says.
What ensued was nothing short of legendary. That 10th inning saw Kyle Schwarber pick off Indians' closer Bryan Shaw with a single. Once Schwarber was on base he was replaced with pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr., who, along with the intentionally walked Rizzo, scored when Ben Zobrist hit a line drive double to left field. The Cubs scuttled though pitchers in the bottom of the 10th but won 8-7 when Bryant fielded a routine ground ball to Rizzo for the last out.
Throughout this championship season and beyond Russell emphasizes two things that Maddon and each of the Cubs players have be talking about all season: preparation and teamwork. Russell drives at the fact that there's no one player that the Cubs rely on all the time. Rather, putting in consistent efforts and relying each other to step up and support each other all of the time is what made it work for the organization's on-field staff.
"All year our plan has been to work hard and lift each other up," Russell says of his teammates. "I had their back, and they had my back all year."
"I see these guys every day, I see their work ethic and it's perfect. I see KB's [MVP Bryant's] work ethic and routine. My routine is nice and I keep refining it. And we still all go about our day the same way." Russell also says that from the outset of spring training, one goal was keeping his body and baseball form in order. "In offseason training I normally just focus on letting my body hit the home runs."
Whether it's strength training, working on his swing with the Cubs' batting coaches, or plugging in what he calls "the right nutrition," with clean eating and snacking on MET-Rx Big 100 protein bars, his favorite dugout snack, Russell admits, too, that he's become a bit of a Chicagoan, taking to the culinary influence of the city he plays for and a city he loves.
"When I'm away from the field it's kind of hard to eat completely clean," Russell says with a bit of a laugh. "My favorite spots here are Lou Malnati's for Chicago-style pizza, and I also love Portillo's." He's also got a taste for a good hardy steak too. "RPM is my favorite. And one of my wife's favorites and mine too is Chicago Cut. Great food over all, great scene."
More importantly and no surprise is the fact that Russell's game and game preparation is very mental.
"(We've) been working all year and just preparing for that big moment, envisioning it in my brain to perform on that stage, the biggest stage," Russell says. "It's so cool just being in the clubhouse with all these guys, seeing them work and get better over the course of the season."
Even better, Russell's postseason report is exactly what Chicago Cubs fans would want to hear. The NL All-Star shortstop says he is confident that this organization, under Maddon and wunderkind operations president Theo Epstein, have a long and bright future ahead of them.
"I honestly think we have a real good chance of creating something very, very good here in Chicago. We won the World Series this year, but if you look down the road I think that there will be more titles in our future."
Russell, 22, is just one of a bumper crop of the newest and most explosive Cubs players to impact the big leagues, along with 23-year old second baseman Javier Baez, as well as catcher Willson Contreras and third baseman Bryant, both 24.
"They fact that we're so young and with this experience of the World Series, I think that can only make us better," Russell points out. "That's all knowledge you can't put a price tag on, it's stuff you have to experience first hand."
On winning the World Series for Chicago, Russell sums it up in just a few words.
"It was just a beautiful moment."