It hasn’t stopped Russell from bursting onto the scene. Yes, sluggers Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper both went deep in the Cubs' 3-2 win over the Washington Nationals on Tuesday night, but it was Russell who stole the show. He had three hits, including a walk-off double.
“I had a little feeling,” Russell after the game. “A little voice in the back of my head saying tonight is going to be a big ballgame.”
It wasn't just his performance with the bat that impressed. Russell played a flawless second base that included six assists, as he started two double plays behind starter Kyle Hendricks. He saved his best for a ground ball up the middle off the bat of Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Russell dove behind second base, got to his feet and easily threw out Zimmerman. He calls the dive and hop back up to throw his “signature move.”
“God there’s no chance I would be doing that [at 21],” Hendricks said. “It’s fun to watch. He’s going to be really good for a long time.”
That’s the prevailing thought on Russell, who’s getting a head start on his career. No one thought for a moment he would be in the majors this quickly after he labored through an injury plagued 2014 season. But after Javier Baez was sent to Triple-A at the end of spring training, infielder Tommy La Stella went down with an injury and Arismendy Alcantara struggled, the door was opened for Russell. And he’s improving every day.
“We’re going to get better as we gain more experience,” Maddon said of his young squad. “If you put your scout’s hat on and look at these guys a year and a half, two years at the most, it’s a dramatic difference. It’s the difference between being a sophomore and senior in high school. It’s the same thing.”
That’s especially appropriate for Russell, as he’s not far removed from being in high school -- though he seems to have the maturity of a player much older. With the winning run on second and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, he slowed down the game against reliever Matt Grace.
“Stay calm, see the pitch you want, don’t try to do too much,” Russell recalled.
That's a veteran mentality. Not every moment has been smooth for Russell since he made his debut last month. He has struck out 44 times already, and his transition to second base has been a work in progress. But he shows off his talent in some capacity nearly every day, making the trade last season of pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for him look better and better. But don’t forget his age, Maddon implores.
“He just turned 21,” the manager said. “Most of the time those guys are in Double-A, or sometimes A ball. And they’re making all these mistakes in like Davenport [Iowa]. That’s where you make those mistakes, but he’s making them here.
“A lot of guys that age and experience level, they’re not here. They’re in some obscure place without the spotlight on them learning their craft. He’s having to do it on the fly here. He’s doing a great job.
“His mental toughness is really incredible to me. How he’s fought through all these difficult moments for himself.”
Bryant calls Russell a “special player.” Bryant should know, as he is getting better with each day as well. Bryant also receives most of the focus, but that might change soon.
Russell credits the work he puts in for his performance. Wednesday is supposed to be an early defensive work day but it was suggested to Russell he take it off after such a great night, which included his first walk-off hit.
“No, not at all,” Russell said, shaking his head. “I have to keep on that path. With me it’s my early work. I take my early work serious.”
His game is pretty serious as well.