The Chicago Cubs may be in the thick of the National League playoff race, but things haven't exactly gone according to plan.
Manager Joe Maddon's expiring contract has crept up whenever the club has hit a cold streak, and star players like third baseman Kris Bryant have seen their names pop up in trade rumors. These distractions have taken a toll.
"I’d say so 1,000 percent," Bryant said, according to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic. "Everybody in this clubhouse is human. When you start hearing things like that, when Joe starts hearing things like that, myself included, you start thinking a little bit. The past four years, none of that has happened and it’s just kind of been we’re cruising along.
"But personally, whatever happens for me happens. All I can do is really focus on these last (14) games and doing all I can to help the team win. And I think I’ve been doing that for five years here now. I’m willing to toot my own horn a little bit - I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it."
Earlier this week, Cubs president Theo Epstein expressed frustration with the team's inconsistent play. The Cubs subsequently outscored the Pittsburgh Pirates 31-9 over two games.
Entering Sunday, the Cubs hold a one-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL wild-card race. Maddon, despite the uncertainty around his future as the team's skipper, appears focused on getting the team back to the postseason. Winning the franchise's first World Series in over a century has become a distant memory.
"You’re always trying to prove yourself," Maddon said. "You’re always trying to be worthy to be here, in a sense. We all formulate our own self-doubt. You do. I do. It just happens that these are baseball players that are doing it on a pretty big stage. The thing I’m attempting to do is to have them put that in their back pocket a bit and just go play baseball. But it doesn’t surprise me. I’ve seen it before in other places."
Despite the team's struggles, the Cubs own a run differential of plus-102. Bryant, though perhaps not producing at an MVP level, has been a steady presence in the lineup. He's batting .285/.384/.526 with 29 home runs and 73 RBIs in 139 games.
The Cubs have 14 games remaining, starting with Sunday's series finale against the Pirates. They also play seven more games against the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.