Led By Their Rising Stars, Cubs Surge Ahead in NLCS

LOS ANGELES — After being maligned and frustrated in the first three games of the National League Championship Series, Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell is joining Javier Baez, his double-play partner, in a coming-out party of the organization’s youth. For the second night in a row, their contributions helped the Cubs to victory, putting them on the brink of the team’s first World Series appearance since 1945.

“They continue to grow,” catcher David Ross said after a 8-4 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday night. “They find a way to get it done. They don’t get swallowed up in the big moment, they thrive in it. The growth process is amazing to me.”

It has certainly been amazing to watch Baez both at the plate and in the field as once again he dazzled, this time throwing out Adrian Gonzalez after he laid down a surprise bunt in the seventh inning. Then Baez cleared the bases for a three-run double in the eighth to put away Game 5 for good. We’ve come to expect that out of the 23-year-old Baez this postseason, but Russell was slumping as recently as two days ago. Russell never wavered. Not for a moment. He never gave up or gave in. Was there frustration? Of course, but not the debilitating kind.

“I feel like my at-bats haven’t been that bad this whole postseason, but you stick to your work ethic and you believe in yourself and you stay confident,” the 22-year-old Russell said after homering for the second consecutive night. “There’s a little frustration there, but it’s a different type of frustration. It’s a frustration where you know you have the stuff to get the job done, [and] you want to help produce for your team and for your offense.”

Russell broke a 1-1 tie with a two-run shot in the sixth inning one day after doing the same in the fourth inning to extend a Cubs lead. Two home runs in two days to go along with three other hits raised Russell’s postseason batting average from .042 to .263. His playoffs changed that quickly, though only because he stuck with the program. That has been the storyline for Games 4 and 5 as the Cubs are getting to the heart of the Dodgers’ bullpen after some frustrating moments in Games 2 and 3.

“The makeup of these guys, they have something about them,” Ben Zobrist said. “They’re clutch guys. They’re clutch players.”

It’s not so much that they’re clutch in an every-moment sense, it’s that they have the ability to be clutch because they’re talented and mature beyond their years. That’s what’s separating the young Cubs from others. And don’t forgetWillson Contreras in that conversation. All he has done in limited playing time is go 7-for-17 this postseason. Cries for the 24-year-old to play more instead of the slumping Jason Heyward are only going to get louder.

“He’s working good at-bats,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Contreras. “He’s not just pigeonholing himself, deploying the baseball. He’s doing the proverbial taking what the pitcher gives him, and using the whole field. And he plays with that energy. You’ve got to love the energy that he plays with. Everybody does. Not a surprise at all.”

Talk to any veteran on the team and they will say the same thing: There is no surprise that the young players are coming through. They’ve seen it all season. In fact, they saw it starting in spring training and it simply hasn’t stopped. No slump keeps them or this Cubs team down for very long.

“At any given moment it can happen for you,” Heyward said. “Slumps end, slumps start. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Heyward could have been talking about himself instead of his teammates, as his postseason batting average dropped to .071 after going 0-for-4 on Thursday while stranding six runners. He’s fortunate others are picking him up, starting with Russell, who hit his home run right after Heyward struck out with Baez in scoring position. The focus can be on the positives, though, as the Cubs’ hitting woes seem to be behind them, at least for the moment.

“I was just trying to find some gaps,” Russell said of his home run. “I was looking for something up in the zone to drive. First-pitch slider a little bit low. Second pitch was a slider, but it was elevated and I put the barrel on it, and it kind of went. But just rounding the bases it was pretty exciting. Pumped up. Not only for myself, but for the team and that little cushion that Jonny [Lester] had to go forward from that, and I felt really good.”

Youth keeps being served over and over again in the postseason for the Cubs. While Baez has dazzled from Day 1, others have finally caught up. Russell is just the latest.

“When Riz [Anthony Rizzo] and Addy [Russell] didn’t start hot, everybody was asking about them,” Baez said. “And there you have it. They’re both hot now. And we scored a lot of runs for our pitchers.”

It’s all because the Cubs stayed the course, beginning with their young core, whose members play with equal parts flair and recklessness. Contreras had words with the umpires late in the game after earlier throwing up his hand in excitement running to first after getting a base hit. Meanwhile, Baez almost hurt his ankle flying around second on his bases-loaded double. Maddon will never ask his players to slow down or lose what makes them special — and the team loves the attitude anyway.

“We have a lot of talent on this team,” Lester said, “but we have a lot of guys that are dirt-ballers that get down and get dirty and make a lot of plays and have some dirty at-bats for us, too.”

It’s a good description, but the Cubs also have a young shortstop who’s a bit more reserved and not as brash. He’s been thrust into the spotlight this postseason, first for slumping and then for breaking out of it in a dramatic way. What might Game 6 bring from the Cubs’ flamboyant players as well as their quiet ones? It has been a roller coaster of excitement this week in Los Angeles, but you can imagine what Wrigley Field will look like.

“To go back home with the advantage is really important,” Zobrist said of the Cubs’ 3-2 lead in the series. “You have to feel good about our chances against [Clayton] Kershaw on Saturday. We like our chances.”

Asked what the key would be this weekend, Zobrist didn’t hesitate. It’s the same as it has been since the early days of spring training, as it especially applies to the Cubs’ youth right now. They’ve emerged on the national stage in a big way.

“Stay in the moment,” Zobrist said. “Like we’ve been doing this whole time.

Article Written by Jesse Rogers of ESPN