Russell has Georgia on his mind

James Russell (PHOTO/LARRY WOOLIS)

James Russell almost goes into a kind of political mode when asked about being on the Chicago Cubs' opening day roster. The left-hander and 2007 14th-round draft pick from the University of Texas has thrown 11 scoreless innings in big league camp this spring, and it's not a stretch to say that he will be in Atlanta for the team's season opener in less than a week.

The Cubs open the season Monday, April 5 against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. First pitch is set for 3:10 p.m. CDT with television coverage provided by ESPN.

As it stands now, Russell will be one of the 25 players on the Cubs' opening day roster barring a last-minute trade, manager Lou Piniella said on Friday.

"Unless we make a deal," Piniella told reporters. "Remember (General Manager Jim Hendry and Assistant General Manager Randy Bush) are both working hard to get us an experienced right-hander, so if we do anything, that would be the final spot. If not, yeah, Russell is in line."

But Russell isn't getting too excited yet. Just say that he's cautiously optimistic.

"I haven't heard anything yet from them," Russell says. "They said I had a really good chance at sticking. I'll believe it whenever I'm in Atlanta."

Russell has done everything in his power to get there. The son of former major league pitcher Jeff Russell, he has scattered no earned runs and six hits over 11 innings this spring and has 10 strikeouts to three walks.

For now, he is expected to join fellow rookies Justin Berg and Esmailin Caridad in a bullpen that took a hit when right-hander Angel Guzman, thought to be the team's primary setup man, injured his shoulder early in camp.

Russell believes he has earned the opportunity to prove himself.

"I don't really pay attention to the numbers a whole lot," he said. "I just try to make my pitches and execute what I want to do with my pitches. I've gotten to the point where I can throw all of my pitches pretty regularly for strikes."

Russell started last season at Class AA Tennessee and had a fairly rough go of things. He finished with a 5.11 ERA in 11 appearances there, including five starts.

But he was promoted to Class AAA Iowa and soon rewarded the Cubs' faith. In 26 games, including seven starts, Russell had a 3.43 ERA and 46 strikeouts to 19 walks in 65 2/3 innings. He then went on to have a stellar showing in the Arizona Fall League, posting a 1.26 ERA in 14 innings with 14 strikeouts to only two walks.

The key to his turnaround, he said, was mostly in the command of his pitches.

"I just started focusing more on locating my fastball and then I started throwing a two-seam fastball," said Russell. "My pitching coach (at Tennessee), Dennis Lewallyn, came up to me and we started messing around with it and I started throwing it to righties, and now I can throw it to lefties to get groundballs."

This spring, Russell has developed a slider-cutter combination that he's been trying out in games. Going off his numbers in camp, it seems to be working, as are all of his pitches.

"It's been working pretty good for me," he said, adding, "I haven't had a lot of problems with my curveball. I haven't had to throw my changeup as much, but it's still always a comfort pitch for me. I've just been working on command of my fastball."

Relieving is still somewhat new to Russell, who spent his college career at Texas as a starter and stayed in that role until last season at Double-A.

But he says the transition didn't take long and wasn't difficult.

"The only thing I had to work on was throwing less to get ready to go into the game," Russell said. "I maybe don't conserve as much coming into the game as a reliever, but it's not a whole lot (of difference)."

Russell grew up watching his father pitch for several American League clubs and says to even be on an opening day roster would be a dream come true.

"It's something you dream about as a little boy," he said. "It's kind of shocking, a little bit. To play against guys that you watch on TV, that's pretty cool. I'm just doing what I've been taught all the way through baseball. It's starting to work out for me."

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