MILWAUKEE — As the chatter of NFL analysts on the clubhouse TV droned before the game Sunday and NFL jerseys hung in players’ lockers, the optics of the Cubs’ annual September football-themed road trip never seemed so awkward.
It didn’t get any less awkward after they lost another shortstop, along with their third consecutive game to the Brewers, 8-5 on Sunday, as football season arrived three weeks early in the Cubs’ clubhouse.
True, the Cubs have 20 games left. They even have a 1½-game lead over the Diamondbacks for the last playoff position in the National League.
But as players and coaches pulled on their Khalil Mack, Rob Gronkowski, Barry Sanders, Troy Aikman and Jerry Rice jerseys — along with one conspicuously out-of-place Forrest Gump Alabama jersey — their chances of making the playoffs had never looked so bleak so late in the season since this competitive window opened in 2015.
“Just play. All we can do is show up and play,” said left-hander Jon Lester, who gave up all eight runs, including four on a pair of home runs, as the Cubs dropped to 4½ games behind the first-place Cardinals in the NL Central. “You can’t sit here and mope and complain about this.”
They certainly would seem to have cause after shortstop Addison Russell was hit in the head by a pitch in the third inning and eventually left the game, one day after starting shortstop Javy Baez was diagnosed with a fracture in his thumb that could sideline him the rest of the season.
Russell remained “under evaluation for a possible concussion” as he traveled with the team to San Diego on Sunday night, his status for that four-game series pending daily exams.
“It’s, as they say, suboptimal,” said manager Joe Maddon, whose starting shortstop is second baseman David Bote until further notice.
Russell, who laughed with teammates in the clubhouse after the game as he donned the No. 44 Forrest Gump jersey he picked from a pile provided by one of the theme trip’s organizers, was hit near the bill of his helmet, above his left eye.
He remained on the ground for several minutes as a Cubs trainer, the Brewers team doctor and eventually a second member of the Brewers’ medical staff attended to him.
He suffered a bruised nose, which bled briefly, and appeared dazed initially but persuaded the medical people to allow him to stay in the game. He stole second base on the next pitch.
Then he scored on the next play as the Cubs rallied for three runs.
“The fact that he rallied us at that point was outstanding,” said Maddon, who said Russell seemed OK when checked on the field. “And when he came back in, they just wanted to take a better look at him, so we got him out of the game at that point.”
Under Major League Baseball’s policy, there is no specific timeline for Russell’s “evaluation,” making his status as unclear as the Cubs’ playoff prospects.
In addition to being down both shortstops on the roster, their closer (Craig Kimbrel) is out with an elbow issue until at least the end of the week, and their two most playoff-tested veterans in the rotation (Lester and Cole Hamels) are coming off especially poor outings in Milwaukee.
“Honestly, there’s only one way to deal with moments like this, and that is in the moment,” Maddon said. “Anxiety lives in the future. Things could change just as quickly.
“I know these kids pretty well, and I don’t see any panic in the eye. It’s just a matter that — obviously, we’ve got to pitch well — but we still have to be more offensive, stay in the [strike] zone.”
Asked before the game if he still believes in his theory that September creates its own energy, Maddon quipped, “It needs to right now.
“Please Mr. September, bring it on. We’re ready for your energy.”