Russell Mature Beyond his Years

KODAK, Tenn. – James Russell didn't expect to be in Double-A so quickly, but the lefty out of Texas says he is grateful for the opportunity. The Tennessee Smokies are certainly happy to already have him. Russell has two wins on the season and despite a club-imposed pitch count, he is showing signs of being a standout on the mound.

Russell was drafted by the Cubs out of the University of Texas in 2007 in the 14th round. He made three appearances combined in the Arizona Rookie League and for Class A Peoria, where he tossed nine scoreless innings.

Russell expected to spend the bulk of his 2008 summer in High-A ball at Daytona with a start in Peoria, but by the end of April the 6-foot-4 left-hander was in Tennessee.

"It was a big surprise," Russell says. "I was hoping maybe towards the end of the year or midway through the year to be up here in Double-A, but I got up here quicker. I'm happy about it. I love it here. It's been great. I just pitched like I know how and got here."

Russell is 2-0 with a 3.86 ERA for Tennessee. He has struck out 23 batters and walked just six in 30.1 innings of work in six games. Russell is on a pitch count for now and hasn't gone too deep into games, thus the no-decisions to date.

His last outing on May 29 against the Carolina Mudcats wasn't his best, though Russell did strike out four of the 22 batters he faced. Russell gave up five earned runs and two homers, but the Smokies prevailed in 10 innings and he wasn't tagged with the loss.

Russell has been successful when he relies on his fastball and, most especially, his changeup. His father, former major league pitcher Jeff Russell, taught James the pitch.

"You don't want to grip it too tight or too hard, it's in between and keep the same action that your fastball has and let the grip do the work," James Russell said. "Just hold it and throw it."

His curveball remains a work in progress, but much like Russell, it's coming along quicker than he thought it would.

"I've been surprised," Russell said. "My curveball has been pretty good so far, and I am getting more consistent with it. I can throw it for strikes now. It's another pitch to have, and it helps me keep hitters off balance."

Russell went to the soft curveball a few too many times in his last outing. The Smokies want to see him uncork his fastball, refine it and rely on a hard curve.

"He needs a little more command of his fastball, but you can say that about a lot of big league pitchers as well," said Dennis Lewallyn, the Smokies' pitching coach. "The changeup has been a very good pitch for him. He needs just a little bit more consistency with the fastball.

"The one thing he has a tendency to do is throw his curveball for a strike and not always throw it as hard as he can in a two-strike situation. We've talked about it, he's learned from it and he's starting to throw it harder now in put-away counts. He knows what he needs to work on, and he's working on it."

Russell's quick promotion to Tennessee is not that surprising when put in the context of his college experience. The 22-year-old pitched for two years at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, and then transferred to Texas for a year before being drafted.

Russell was 8-4 with a 3.86 ERA in 21 appearances with the Longhorns in 2007 and tied for the team lead in strikeouts with 91. He led his team with 109 2/3 innings pitched.

The number of college innings is why the Cubs have Russell on restricted work on the mound.

"I'm on a pitch count right now so it's kind of hard for me to go deep into a ball game," Russell said. "Once my pitch count gets up, I'd like to stay in a couple of ball games for a while."

Russell is limited to 85 pitches, but he doesn't count them once he takes the ball.

"I don't worry about it all," he said. "I just go out there and do my thing."

The pitch count is set by Cubs minor league officials such as Mark Riggins, the pitching coordinator, and Oneri Fleita, the vice president of player personnel.

"It's based on the fact he is coming out of a major college program, so we're going to be a little bit protective of him, make sure he's good and healthy and maybe overly protective of him. But it's good," Lewallyn said. "Pitchers learn, ‘I can pitch six or seven innings with 85 pitches.' He's adapted well to it, he's been more aggressive and not trying to make perfect pitches – just aggressive in the strike zone. So I think in the long run, he's going to be thankful we did it."

Russell seems ready for the restriction to be lifted, but he also knows that baseball – and especially pitching – is a long process. As he's progressed from playing as a child to high school, to junior college, to a major university in the Big 12 and now to the minor leagues, Russell has a simple way to maintain his equilibrium.

"It's the same game I've played since I was three years old," Russell said. "It's the same game, just better players. You just have to work that much harder to be on top of your game."

Russell can also seek the advice of his father, who pitched for five major league teams, including the Cincinnati Reds and the Texas Rangers, from 1983 to 1996. Russell, who was born in 1986 in Ohio, literally grew up in baseball.

"It's helped me to get a better look at how to act like a professional and what they do to get there and the way they carried themselves on the field," Russell said.

Jeff Russell began his career as a starter and finished as a closer. He makes periodic visits to see his son and share pitching tips.

"If he sees something off with my mechanics, he'll tell me," James Russell said. "If he sees me throw a pitch that he doesn't really like, we'll sit down and talk about it after the game."

That background helped prepare Russell for the jump from college to Double A.

"Normally you would say, ‘Don't let it overwhelm you,' but he's in a unique situation because he's been around the game," Lewallyn said. "He's not as overwhelmed by the whole situation as maybe some other guys would be. He's mature beyond his years because he's been around the game his whole life."

Russell also knows that baseball is not a guarantee. His contract with the Cubs includes a stipend to finish school. He needs three to four semesters to finish a degree in education.

"I would like something to fall back on in case baseball doesn't work out," Russell said. "Finding the time to get back is kind of hard right now."

That's because Russell should be kept busy by the Cubs organization for the foreseeable future. He has drawn on his college experience to help him learn how to get out pro hitters.

"You faced pro-type hitters with metal bats," Russell said. "It helps you learn how to pitch people and set people up. You have to locate better. I think it's helped me out a ton. You faced a lot of guys that you'll come back and face in minor league ball. It helps you get ready for what you'll be facing in Double A and Triple A."

A spot in Double A opened up in April because Justin Berg was promoted to Triple A Iowa. The Cubs felt Russell was ready to make the jump.

"If Berg goes up, somebody's got to come up," Lewallyn said. "With him being a major college pitcher, he's a little more advanced than some of the guys in Peoria and Daytona. It's the guy the organization feels is closest to being ready to step up to that level, and he was the guy. It's a feather in his cap."

Lewallyn sees Russell benefiting from a full summer in minor league ball – this is essentially his first season as a pro – but it would not be surprising if he made another leap.

"I think he needs a lot of innings in the minor leagues," Lewallyn said. "It doesn't necessarily mean Double A. It could be Triple A."

Russell has the right temperament for the process. Despite being a lefty, he shows none of the southpaw quirkiness. He has a dry wit, soft Texas accent and ever-present smile.

He has three strikeouts and one walk in his plate appearances for the Smokies – the first time he's has a bat in his hands in a game since junior college.

"It's not everyday you have someone throwing a 90-mile-per-hour fastball at you," Russell said with a wry grin.

Russell is used to being the one throwing them. That velocity, along with the fact he's a left-hander, makes his chances of making the major leagues very good.

"You see left-handed pitchers, they're around for awhile," he said. "The main thing is to be healthy and do your best, hopefully get up there, get a contract and stay around for awhile."

Lewallyn said Russell has the arm and the composure to make a team's rotation.

"I think he could be a third or fourth starter in the big leagues," Lewallyn said. "There are guys that have better stuff, but left-handers that command the baseball play a long time in the big leagues. I think he's got a chance to be a quality big league pitcher."

For now, Russell is keeping life low-key on and off the field. During his down time he likes to "hang out at the house, get some sleep, play some video games and maybe go out and play golf every now and then," Russell said.

While working with Lewallyn, he's keying on being quick to the plate.

"We've been working on quickening up out of the stretch," Russell said. "We're keeping it pretty simple. I'd just like to keep getting better and get more wins."

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