With his mesh camouflage hat turned backwards, Kris Bryant sat down inside the Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon as the don’t-worry-be-happy face of the franchise.
The Cubs still have a roadmap to the postseason with Bryant as a Rookie of the Year frontrunner, Anthony Rizzo in the MVP race, two frontline starting pitchers for October, a strong back end of the bullpen and the perfect manager for the Wrigleyville circus.
But Wednesday’s 7-4 loss to the Cincinnati Reds — losing a series to a last-place team already mathematically eliminated from the division race — showed why Cubs fans will be on edge and angry on Twitter even as Joe Maddon’s group tries to play loose, naive and carefree.
“It’s tough,” Bryant said. “Obviously, you’re on cloud nine when you hit a game-tying homer and then you blow it the next inning. Sometimes baseball works that way. It’s a crazy game. It gives you everything and then takes everything away.”
The Cubs have math on their side, with FanGraphs (96.8 percent) and Baseball Prospectus (95.9 percent) making their playoff odds that morning look like a sure thing. But like Bryant said, crazy things happen.
Like Bryant delivering in the clutch with two outs in the eighth inning and 101-mph flamethrower Aroldis Chapman waiting in the bullpen. Bryant launched J.J. Hoover’s first-pitch curveball into the left-field bleachers for the game-tying two-run homer.
And then Bryant committed the kind of error that would haunt this team in October.
With two outs in the ninth inning, Bryant couldn’t stop a ball that went between his legs for an error. Hector Rondon then threw Joey Votto three straight fastballs between 96 and 97 mph. Votto crushed the last one out to left-center field for a three-run homer.
Maddon always defends his players, and the manager pointed out the angle and degree of difficulty for the third baseman with Jay Bruce at the plate.
“Listen,” Maddon said, “if you’re on the opposite corner on an infield (and) a lefty hits a bullet like that at you, it’s not like he’s not ready. He’s ready. That ball just was on him so quickly and that’s why it got through. I have no issues.
“There’s nothing to point fingers at there. He’s been playing really well.”
[MORE CUBS: Cubs awaiting results on Kyle Schwarber’s MRI]
No doubt, the Cubs wouldn’t be here without Bryant, who now has 22 homers and leads the team with 84 RBIs and talked about how he felt so good he wished Thursday wasn’t an off-day.
“He hit it hard, but there’s no excuses for that. I got to keep the ball in front,” Bryant said. “It was a tough play, but I made that play plenty of times in my career, so I’m looking forward to the next one.
“There’s a lot of positives from the game, personally and as a team, so there’s nothing to really hang my head about. I wish I had blocked the ball or just tried to put a body part on it. But I was unable to do that.”
The Cubs are going to be tested, beginning with the news that game-changing rookie Kyle Schwarber would be a late scratch to the lineup with right rib soreness and getting an MRI.
And the Cubs are pretty much hoping to squeeze five innings at a time from 60 percent of their rotation.
Jason Hammel started this game by giving up a leadoff home run to Jason Bourgeois — who had four homers through 651 career plate appearances in The Show — on his way to another non-quality start (giving up four runs in five innings).
“You got to set a better tone,” Hammel said. “Obviously very frustrated with the way things are going. But I’m not looking to try and prove myself at all. Ever. I could care less about proving myself. I know what I can do.”
[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez returns to Cubs with something to prove]
The Cubs still held a six-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card heading into the defending champs' showdown against the Los Angeles Dodgers late Wednesday night on the West Coast.
The Cubs also have their 1-2 punch lined up for Friday and Saturday against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field: Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.
This is what meaningful baseball in September feels like.
“I think we just got to approach each game like we’ve been doing and not really get too high or too low,” Bryant said. “I don’t think we should treat this one any different.”