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What a relief: James Russell has had a great start

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates

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Updated: July 3, 2013 7:07AM

James Russell has turned into one of the best setup men in baseball.

But don’t think he’s forgotten about his first goal — to be a starter.

“I still have that in the back of my mind,’’ he said Saturday. “But right now it’s not in the cards, so I’m going with the flow of relieving.’’

It’s been smooth sailing so far.

Russell entered Saturday’s game against the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks having allowed two earned runs in 202/3 innings. He started the season throwing 17 consecutive scoreless innings and has thrown 25 scoreless innings in his 27 appearances, striking out 20 and walking only five.

The first run of the season he allowed came on May 8 against St. Louis and led to a blown save.

But since then, his ERA has declined steadily to 0.87, the second lowest for any National League reliever with at least 25 outings. Only Colorado’s Rex Brothers — also a lefty — has a better one at 0.38 (one earned run in 232/3 innings in 26 appearances).

Russell, 27, last started in 2011 when he made five spot starts. But even then, his ERA was also better as a reliever (2.19 in 49 relief appearances).

“Starting is still a passion of mine,’’ he said. “I feel I’m starting to learn more about how to pitch. I feel I’m progressing as a pitcher, not just a relief pitcher.

“But I definitely love the bullpen now and the adrenaline of coming in the seventh or eighth or ninth when it counts.’’

Russell has given up four hits in his last 10 appearances — and two were in a game on May 8, when he last allowed a run. He’s yielded only one hit in his last six ­appearances.

“I’d like to go no-hit every time out, but that’s not going to happen,’’ he said. “But it’s just good to have a good feel for how things are going now.’’

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