Addison Russell’s walk-off homer sends the message for Cubs: ‘We never quit’

Addison Russell’s walk-off homer sends the message for Cubs: ‘We never quit’

The Cubs showed so much guts and resiliency during their championship season that they had "WE NEVER QUIT" inscribed on the bottom of the outer band to their World Series rings.

Not even 10 percent into the schedule, it's still way too early to draw any grand conclusions about the 2017 team. But largely the same group of players – supremely talented and a year older and a year wiser – has already shown some of those essential qualities.

Addison Russell flipped his bat to the ground and had a little bounce in his steps on Wednesday after he connected with a 97-mph fastball from Neftali Feliz, launching it into Wrigley Field's left-field bleachers for a three-run, walk-off homer. Russell tossed his helmet aside and jumped into the mosh pit awaiting at home plate, teammates pouring bottled water on him after a dramatic 7-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

"Just don't give up – that's the type of style that we play," Russell said. "It seems like whenever you kind of count us out, we seem to have a spark. That's all it takes – one hit, one walk and we get rolling."

That comeback ended the homestand where the Cubs finally raised a World Series banner, got their championship bling and unofficially ended their 2016 victory tour. The defending champs are 8-7 and have won four of their first five series this season, hoping this creates a sense of momentum for a three-city road trip that goes through Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Boston.

"There's been a lot going on, a lot of outside factors pushing against us," said Kyle Hendricks, who has a 6.19 ERA after a four-run, five-inning start against the Brewers. "It was a tough stretch for a little bit there, but these teams we're playing, man, they're coming for us. We have the target on our backs."

Friday will mark the two-year anniversary of Russell's big-league debut. He's still only three months removed from his 23rd birthday. He's already been a 21-homer, 95-RBI, All-Star shortstop, one of the clutch hitters for a championship team.

Russell delivered in the eighth inning by softly lifting a Corey Knebel curveball over the head of first baseman Eric Thames and just beyond the infield dirt for an RBI single that sliced Milwaukee's lead to 4-3.

[MORE CUBS: Kris Bryant to Eric Thames: 'Dude, we got to hit together']

It didn't matter that Knebel and Feliz struck out Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr. and Javier Baez to kill that rally – or that the starting lineup didn't feature Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist or Jason Heyward and the afternoon began with a 55-minute rain delay and Hendricks putting the Cubs in a 3-0 deficit by the second inning.

The day after another comeback win over the Brewers (8-8), Mike Montgomery, Pedro Strop, Koji Uehara and Wade Davis combined to throw four scoreless innings while pinch-running reliever Carl Edwards Jr. scored the game-winning run.

"We just keep coming back for more," manager Joe Maddon said. "It was really one of those ugly wins, but you'll take 'em any day of the week.

"We don't quit. It's on the ring, man, and that's a perfect example."

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 

The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (sore left wrist), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (cut left hand) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

The Cubs didn’t rebook Schwarber to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

All these circumstances made a vintage Jake Arrieta performance during Thursday night’s 11-1 win at Marlins Park so important. Whether or not the Cubs make a blockbuster trade for a pitcher, there are still five-plus weeks left until buyers and sellers will feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”

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On a night where he felt “low energy,” rocked a new buzz cut and covered his right thumb with Dermabond to treat a cut/blister issue that can be traced back to spring training, Arrieta needed only 82 pitches to get through seven innings, completely shutting down a strong Miami lineup except for a Marcell Ozuna home run.

Arrieta’s inconsistencies (7-5, 4.36 ERA) have mirrored a 37-35 team, but he didn’t hesitate when asked where he is at now in a season that has so far not lived up to his Cy Young/All-Star expectations.  

“I’m close,” Arrieta said. “I’m really close.”

The Cubs are still the defending champs. Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. Blocking out a messy personal situation, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell almost hit for the cycle (no triple) the day after getting questions about his divorce and a Major League Baseball investigation. This year’s Schwarber – rookie Ian Happ – also went 4-for-5 and gave the team another jolt.  

“It’s tough to see Schwarber go down,” Arrieta said. “We know that he’s going to be one of our mainstays in the lineup eventually. He’s hit a rough patch and it happens to the best of us. 

“I’ve been there. I talked to him yesterday a little bit about just keeping his head down and going to work and getting his at-bats and trying to find that comfort level. He’ll be back soon. He’s a tremendous hitter who’s going through some struggles and he’s going to right the ship. There’s no doubt about that. He’s too good of a hitter.

“A night like tonight where we pitch well and we score 11 runs, it looks easy. But it’s about consistency and trying to build off of a night like tonight. We’ve got the guys necessary to do so. We’re very capable of doing that.”

Especially if Arrieta gets hot again and shows how he can lift an entire team. 

“To get Jake pitching that kind of quality game again is going to be a big boon to us,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”