Evolving Cubs rookie Addison Russell peaking at right time

MILWAUKEE – Somewhat lost in all the playoff fever and debate about the starting lineup for Wednesday’s wild-card game is the resurgence of Chicago Cubs rookie Addison Russell. The 21-year-old Russell will be a key player for the Cubs this month as he’ll become the fifth-youngest shortstop to start a playoff game in the World Series era, which goes back to 1903.

“It’s humbling,” Russell said Saturday. “It’s nice to be recognized like that, but there’s still work to be done.”

Russell has been doing nothing but work since arriving on the major league scene sooner than anyone expected this past April. He has had his growing pains at the plate, but he has played a slick second base and shortstop this season. Now he’s starting to expand his game just in time for the postseason.

“Just testing the waters a little bit,” Russell said. “Especially going into the wild-card game. Just trying to broaden the horizon. Definitely testing some things.”

For about five-and-a-half months, Russell had two steals and attempted one bunt. He has doubled his stolen-base total and tripled his bunt attempts in just the past few games. He has had hits in seven of his past 12 at-bats, including an RBI single in in his first at-bat in the second inning against the Brewers on Saturday night. Russell is maturing at an opportune time.

“Even his conversations with me have gotten a lot easier for him,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “It just speaks to self-confidence.”

It’s that self-confidence that has Russell believing he can handle shortstop duties in the postseason even though he’ll be the youngest to start a playoff game since Edgar Renteria in 1997.

“The only thing I have to compare this to is high school,” Russell said. “I had butterflies when the state tournament came around. I imagine that’s what it will be, a little bit.”

You know a player is young when he’s invoking his high school days as a reference point, but like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, there is little that screams "rookie" these days when you watch Russell’s game. Now he’s adding some new wrinkles -- he laid down a couple good bunts toward first base recently.

“That’s what I love,” Maddon said. “When a guy starts becoming a baseball player. God, I love that. It’s not just about getting hits.”

Russell is about preventing hits more than getting them as he has excelled at two different positions this year. Now that he has settled in at shortstop, his all-around game is following.

“They suggested some things all year; I feel now I’m in great shape and confident in my legs,” he said.

What October role will he play? The timid rookie or the confident captain of the infield? Maddon doesn’t see Russell becoming anything more than he already is. It comes with time in the big leagues.

“You’re able to be yourself,” Maddon said. “That’s what you’re seeing in Addison, being himself.”