As Kris Bryant stood at his locker before Wednesday night's game, a reporter asked him how the Cubs have been able to get by recently without their "best players" — referencing the injuries to Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez.
The reporter quickly clarified and said, "SOME of your best players," but Bryant didn't even bat an eye and he certainly didn't appear to take any offense to the accidental slight.
In fact, he agreed and also referred to Rizzo and Baez the Cubs' "best players" throughout the interview.
It was just a small, innocuous interaction, but it is a window into how Bryant views himself.
He's obviously confident (no player can make it to the big leagues without self-confidence), but he's also his harshest critic and a perfectionist.
There's a strong argument to be made that Bryant is the Cubs' single most important player even when everybody is healthy — he is the only guy in that locker room who has ever won an MVP award — but now that Rizzo and Baez are likely done for the regular season, all eyes are on Bryant.
If the Cubs are going to get where they want to go, they're going to need an MVP-level performance from Bryant. And he'll have to deliver that while battling through right knee inflammation that has hampered him for the last two months.
Bryant received a cortisone shot in that knee last week in San Diego and returned to the lineup with such force that he was named National League Player of the Week. He also surpassed Ernie Banks for the most homer by a Cubs player (137) in his first five years with the team.
He wasn't willing to credit the shot as a magic cure, but he admitted it played a factor in his turnaround at the plate.
"When you speak up and say something's not right and then you — I wouldn't say fix it — but make it feel a lot better, that's very satisfying," Bryant said. "Sometimes people are scared to say stuff or speak up because you think you're gonna look a certain way or you're not gonna look tough. But at the end of the day, you gotta do what's best for the team and at that point, I was hurting the team by not saying anything. I'm glad I did."
Bryant said he still feels like he has a lot to learn in that regard — finding the balance between trying to tough out injuries and speaking up to get some time off or other treatment to address the issue. Even after dealing with last year's shoulder injury and this year's knee issue, he still doesn't know exactly how to walk that fine line.
Part of that is because he has such high expectations for himself.
He's so tough on himself that earlier this month, Joe Maddon resorted to emailing Bryant some notes and included his career WAR, highlighting how impactful he's been as a player in his five years with the Cubs.
"He can be his own worst critic," Maddon said. "This guy really sets high standards for himself and so does everybody else around him — almost to the point that the standards are unsustainable or unreachable."
The Cubs skipper called Bryant an "underrated" player and feels the 27-year-old with a .904 career OPS still has another level of production he can achieve as he continues to learn how to give himself a break.
Over the weekend, Bryant was discussing his career to date and said he felt it was filled with good and bad but probably more bad days than good.
The guy who trails only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts in WAR since the start of the 2015 season believes his career has been filled with more bad days than good?
"Think where he came from: He was supposed to be this guy since he was 12," Maddon said. "So he's been dealing with these kinds of thoughts for a long time. And any time he has a bad moment, it becomes overamplified, there's no question about it.
"...I appreciate that, the fact that he is self-critical in a sense. But he's also gotta give himself a break. Cut yourself some slack, brother. There's 29 other teams that would love to have him."
Bryant agrees that he's his own harshest critic. So any time a fan expresses frustration after he strikes out or complains when he doesn't come through in the clutch, what they're saying holds no weight compared to what he's already telling himself inside his own head.
He appreciates the way Maddon and his Cubs teammates and coaches have had his back and provided him with positive reinforcement over the years, especially when he's slumping or just having a tough day.
But he also doesn't anticipate a world in which he is not his own harshest critic.
In fact, Bryant and those around him feel he's actually gotten HARDER on himself over these last few years, even though he's already accomplished so much personally and for his team (including etching his name in history books forever by playing a central role in the 2016 World Series championship).
Bryant is still learning how to forgive himself and not beat himself up too much. Even after hitting two homers in the Cubs' rout of the Pirates Sunday, he spent more time thinking about how he struck out in his final at-bat of the game.
"It's a game of failure," Bryant said. "I need to think that way so that it brings the best out of me so that I'm never satisfied or complacent with anything I do on the field, 'cause I don't ever want to feel that. And it's tough because I'm so hard on myself, but that's just who I am.
"I'm still working on that. It's really hard to get to that point because I think it's just natural for us to be negative sometimes. There's so much negativity in baseball. You're failing so much. But I truly think in sports, the strongest and most mentally tough people are baseball players because you really have to do it for 162-plus games a year — just constantly succeeding and then getting beat up for four straight at-bats, then succeeding, then doing it again, then making an error in the field or making a nice play. Just so much going on, but I wouldn't trade that for the world."