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Expectations beginning to grow for this plucky Cubs team

CHICAGO -- When James Russell made his big league debut, Lou Piniella was managing the veteran-laden Cubs, Tom Ricketts was a first-year owner and Wrigley Field was still a museum.

It was 2010, a lifetime ago in Cubs years.

“For reasons unknown, we didn’t perform and that’s kind of when the ship started sinking, you could say,” Russell said.

Russell was still with the Cubs when Theo Epstein took over and completely sank the S.S. Cub in order to build a newer, better ship with amenities like a giant Kris Bryant and shiny Addison Russell.

No one would blame those veteran Cubs for cocking an eyebrow at all the well-hyped grand rebuilding plans, especially since those players were considered dead weight.

“Yeah, I mean, plans don’t always work,” Russell said. “Obviously they did it the right way and they know what they’re doing. It’s cool to see things play out and seeing both sides of the stories.”

Russell was one of the last veterans traded, going to Atlanta on July 31 last season, but he’s back, and he’s pretty happy to be here.

It’s June 24, James, and do you know where your Cubs are?

At 39-30 after Tuesday’s 10-inning, 1-0 win over the Dodgers, the Cubs have the fifth-best record in baseball.

“I did not know that,” he said. “It’s different, never being above .500 before. It’s pretty cool.”

Good times are back again at Clark and Addison, and now that the Blackhawks are sobering up from their Stanley Cup bacchanal, and the White Sox are only allegedly playing baseball, this could once again be a Cubs town, where fans live and die on every pitch, rather than every waiver claim.

“Yeah, absolutely we’re ready for it,” Russell said. “We’ve been waiting for it. This city deserves good baseball.”

On Monday night, the Cubs beat Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers 4-2. Bryant hit a homer off a Kershaw curveball and then added another off Adam Liberatore. On Tuesday, they chased Zack Greinke after six innings without scoring a run.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Monday was only the second time he'd seen Kershaw up close, and despite a bit of an off year, Kershaw's stuff is amazing.

“I’m watching all that thinking, 'Where are we going to get the runs from,' you know,” Maddon said Tuesday. “So when you beat a guy of that ability, it should elevate the entire group internally, mentally. The mind, once stretched, has difficulty going back to its original form. You’ve got to beat guys like that to know that you can.”

Maddon said he liked the way his team stayed “in the present tense” in both victories. The wins are a nice bonus.

“If we can go out there with that kind of focus nightly, I’ll take whatever happens after that,” he said.

If the Cubs keep stacking wins, they’re going to be very relevant in August and September. Most likely, unless the Cubs can hack the Cardinals’ lineup, that means a wild-card berth and a do-or-die game.

Given the way the Cubs have played this season, it doesn’t seem that daunting, even if they don't make a splashy addition at the trade deadline.

The Cubs are 8-3 in extra-inning games with nine total walk-off wins. Monday marked their eighth shutout and second 1-0 win. This is a team not only learning how to win, but putting those lessons into practice. It's not a great team, but Miguel Montero's hashtag #wearegood doesn't sound so silly.

"I say what I feel," Montero said. "I'm not trying to be lying to anybody. We’ve got a good team. We’re going to continue to get better and we still got a ways to go."

We all figured the Cubs were going to be more interesting this season, but we didn't know how good they would actually be as a team. The young players have mixed in well with the veterans.

"I think they got the winning mentality," Montero said. "That’s the whole point. They come out here and they come to win. A lot of teams got a lot of talent, but maybe not the winning attitude."

Late-season baseball brings pressure, but no one at Wrigley seems worried about that quite yet. This season won’t be like 2008, where a World Series run was naively expected, but more like 2003 or 2007, when the season builds and the expectations grow.

This is a fun-loving team with a positive manager. Maddon said it starts with him. If he’s organized and confident, his team will follow suit.

“Bring it on, man,” Maddon said. “That’s what it’s all about. We want that. We’ve talked about it, from day one, the word pressure is actually a positive and the better we play, hopefully the more people will recognize us and I think our guys like it. I want them to like it. That’s what this industry is all about, to try and be the best and if you are, you get more recognition.”

The Cubs won Tuesday on a walk-off sacrifice fly by Chris Denorfia after loading the bases against Joel Peralta on a single, an infield single bobbled by third baseman Alberto Callaspo and a pinch-hit walk.

With one out and the Dodgers playing five infielders, Denorfia hit a sacrifice fly to deep center to win the game.

“I believe in magic,” Maddon said before the game. “But I believe it has to be earned. I do. I think baseball magic is earned. I think the more we stay in the present tense like that, that’s like the precursor to the moment where the magic starts to arrive.”

The magic, I think, is already here.