CLEVELAND—On Oct. 17, Cubs manager Joe Maddon cocked his fist, reared back and took a swing at his 22-year-old shortstop. He paused for effect. Then he did it again.
Addison Russell was hitting .045 on the postseason—over the previous six games, he’d put a ball in play 19 times and made an out 18—and the skipper needed him to snap out of it. If I hit you likethis, Maddon explained, his hand held high, it doesn’t do much. If I hit you like this—with his fist lower—I can knock you over.
Russell nodded. Maddon added one more thought before sending him back to work: Don’t worry about pulling the ball. You’re great to the opposite field. Trust your power.
Two weeks later, the Cubs are just one win away from their first championship in 108 years, and they have that brief conversation outside the batting cage on the off-day between Games 2 and 3 of the NLCS to thank for it. Russell has hit .308 and slugged .600 since that heavyweight bout. Two days after he helped force a World Series Game 6 by beating out a 47-foot chopper to third, he smacked a 90-mph sinker that didn’t into the centerfield stands for the first grand slam in a World Series since another Chicago hitter, the White Sox’ Paul Konerko, did it in 2005. Russell screamed the entire time he rounded the bases.
The Cubs were already up 3–0 at that point in the third inning; they would go on to win 9–3. But if Russell’s blast did not affect the result, it certainly affected the mood.
“That’s the nail,” said leftfielder Ben Zobrist. “We knew there was a lot of game left, but that kind of lead in the World Series is really hard to overcome. It was a huge morale boost.”
It was a stress-free game for a team that desperately needed one. The Cubs scored 10 runs in their first five contests and were shut out twice. In their 3–2 Game 5 victory, they took a one-run lead in the fourth and then wiggled out of jams in four of the last five innings, stranding men in scoring position each time.
“I don’t know how an old man like you can stand all this,” 27-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo said to catcher David Ross, 39, in the late innings of that night, “because I’m young, and I feel like I’ve almost had three heart attacks already.”
There was no biting of nails or gnashing of teeth in the Chicago dugout on Tuesday. The Cubs got to Josh Tomlin—pitching on short rest for the second time in his life—early and just kept coming. With two on in the first, Russell lofted a ball to the middle of the diamond, where centerfielder Tyler Naquin and rightfielder Lonnie Chisenhall appeared to disagree about who was in charge. That one fell in for a cheap double, but the shortstop earned every inch of his 434-foot home run, the longest of the Cubs’ postseason. (It gave him six RBIs on the night, tying a World Series record.) He did the real work on the first two pitches of the at-bat, a pair of inside sinkers he was able to lay off. The third one found the inside of the plate.
“If you get over-eager right there,” Maddon said, “you're going to put that sinker in play, it's a ground ball to third base, inning over, none of this happens. But he was patient enough to get a pitch that he could work with. And that's what we're talking about with our young hitters. As they gain more experience, they'll be able to do those kind of things.”
If they are to win Game 7, they’ll have to. A lineup that scored 808 runs in the regular season has floundered in the postseason, hitting .233 and slugging .397 even after the latest offensive outburst. The Indians’ pitching has been exceptional for the most part, and manager Terry Francona has deployed his bullpen brilliantly, but the Cubs’ lineup is so top-heavy that the Cleveland staff has really only had to make it through three or four hitters—Kris Bryant, Rizzo, Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber when he can DH—before facing the equivalent of the pitcher’s spot over and over.
After breakout star second baseman Javier Baez put together an .892 OPS in the first two rounds, pitchers stopped throwing him strikes; he kept chasing anyway. Rightfielder Jason Heyward was the worst qualified hitter in baseball this year and has somehow been even worse in October than over the previous six months. Chicago catchers—Ross, rookie Willson Contreras and little-used veteran Miguel Montero—have combined to hit .083 in the World Series.
So with one game left in the season, Russell is perhaps more important to this team than any other player. His defense has been consistently stellar regardless of his at-bats, but when he is seeing the ball well and working counts and forcing pitchers to throw him strikes, he is also extremely dangerous at the plate. (With the bases loaded—when hurlers are trying desperately to stay over the plate—he hit .391 in the regular season, tops among players who were in that situation at least 20 times.) Russell can contribute on his own, and he can compel the Indians to pitch to the hitters around him. At his best, he can help the Cubs deliver a punch of their own.