The Cubs lost two games off their once-comfortable lead in the National League Central in the five games after accusations of domestic violence against shortstop Addison Russell resurfaced last week.
The bigger-than-baseball attention it has put on the team only increased Wednesday as a new report circulated, indicating “additional credible information” and cooperation from Russell’s ex-wife in MLB’s escalating investigation.
So where does the rest of the team go from here as it plays out the fall with the sobering cloud of the investigation as a backdrop?
The short answer is that they go back to the playoffs.
After three flat losses in those five games helped put the second-place Brewers just a half-game back, the Cubs rebounded Wednesday — but not before blowing a ninth-inning lead — to beat the Pirates 7-6 in 10 innings and stave off the Brewers’ pursuit for at least another day.
In the process, the Cubs clinched no worse than a wild-card playoff berth for a franchise-record fourth consecutive trip to the postseason.
But the serious allegations, the suspense of the impending results of the investigation and the conspicuous absence of Russell (on administrative leave) from the clubhouse hang as a potential distraction as the rest of the team tries to finish its job of winning a division. Never mind a playoff series or two.
“I think we’re doing a really good job of focusing on what we’ve got in front of us right now, focusing on our task,” said center fielder Albert Almora Jr., who drove in the game-winner with a two-out single. “Obviously, there’s an investigation going on, and we know just as much as [outsiders]. But when it comes to the team and what we’ve got right here, I think we’re doing a good job focusing.”
It won’t get easier to do their jobs, both by degree of difficulty created by the Brewers and the potential for off-the-field distraction.
The Brewers are suddenly as hot as anyone in the league after sweeping the Cardinals with a 2-1 victory Wednesday — their sixth win in seven games and 16th of 22.
The Cubs had a 4½-game lead over the Brewers before going 12-11 over that same 25-day extended run.
The Cubs have four games left, including three against the rival Cards over the weekend. The Brewers have three left against the also-ran Tigers.
Russell, who texted manager Joe Maddon in support of the team Tuesday, is expected to have his seven-day administrative leave extended as the investigation pushes forward while the Cubs’ season pushes toward October.
“It’s a good thing that there’s progress in the investigation,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “But as far as preparing for a baseball game, we prepare the same for a baseball game no matter what.
“I honestly don’t think anything could really faze this group at all.”
The Athletic reported Wednesday that MLB has “credible information” beyond the blog post and says Russell’s ex-wife Melisa Reidy and “numerous other witnesses” have been interviewed by MLB investigators — developments that all but assure Russell won’t return this year, regardless of how far the Cubs might play into October.
League and team executives declined comment on the investigation.
Russell has repeatedly denied the allegations, most recently in a statement released through the union Friday night.
Maddon acknowledged the strange day created by the sudden flurry of events that might have contributed to Friday’s lackluster loss to the White Sox.
“It’s hard to say that it didn’t,” he said then.
But he insisted the rough start to the homestand against the Pirates had nothing to do with the outside influences.
“Once we got by that initial reaction on Friday, when we didn’t play that well [it was in the past],” said Maddon. “Of course, there was the news about Addy made it kind of difficult. But I thought we rebounded pretty well.”