Rozner: Relaxed Chicago Cubs suddenly back in playoff mode
Stress was in the air Friday afternoon as the Chicago Cubs returned home from yet another ugly road trip.
And it was a vibe at Wrigley Field unfamiliar to those who have already forgotten the bad old days.
Sure, last year the Cubs struggled in September and were eventually chased down by the Brewers and defeated at home in Game 163.
But there was never a question about the postseason, just as there wasn't in 2017 or 2016.
When this historical run began in 2015, it was all sunshine and lollipops.
So you really have to go back to 2007 -- when the Cubs clinched the division on Friday night of the final weekend in Cincinnati -- to find a time when the fan base faced such a nerve-wracking final month.
But Joe Maddon doesn't want his players feeling what you feel. You know, pressure and pleasure and all that.
"My biggest concern is I think we're playing tight," Maddon said Friday before the Cubs crushed the Pirates. "That's the thing I'm trying to get across to these guys. When you play uptight, it's very difficult. I want us to loosen up and play baseball.
"I think if we are able to do that over the next two weeks, we'll get the result we're looking for."
Even a group that's been through so much the last five years is susceptible to feeling the pressure of a pennant race, especially when expectations are so high.
"I've seen it with veteran players before," Maddon said. "When I first began doing this, I would talk to veteran players -- some big names -- about how they would react to the big moment.
"Even them, you're always trying to prove yourself. We all formulate our own self-doubt. You do. I do. And it just so happens that these are baseball players doing this on a pretty big stage.
"But it doesn't surprise me. I've seen it before in other places."
So Maddon worked the room in San Diego on Thursday and again Friday when they got home, as he has done so well the last five years, getting the players to chill out and enjoy baseball again.
"I talk to them," Maddon said. "I have my ways of infiltrating the group.
"I just want them to go out there and play the game. I don't want over preparation. I don't want more swings. I don't want more information. I don't want more audio, video, whatever.
"Just go out there and set your hair on fire and see what happens."
Since Maddon noticed the quiet dugout Thursday on the West Coast and started working the room, the Cubs have come back Friday and Saturday with 31 runs in two games.
"I think we're all trying too hard sometimes," said Jon Lester, who managed a win Friday with the wind howling straight out. "I'm guilty of it. I think everyone in that clubhouse is guilty of it.
"You want to win the game before the game's even played. That's part of the grind of playing 162 games. You get into those funks sometimes. Playing a game like (Friday's) can help guys loosen up a little bit.
"For us, it's that one pitch. I'm gonna make that perfect pitch and move on to the next guy. Then you're 1-0 instead of making a quality pitch and being 0-1.
"Same thing with hitting, I'm going to try to hit a 4-run homer with nobody on right here.
"You get into those funks and you just have to play your way out of it."
When Friday started, there was much conversation about Joe Maddon and his future on the final homestand of the season. By Saturday night, it was all about the playoff race again.
"We've got seven games left against the team we're chasing in the division and we have a really talented group of guys that hasn't put it all together yet," said Cubs boss Theo Epstein. "I have not seen any quit by any of the individual players. I don't see guys (saying), 'We can't get it done.'
"I see a team that can certainly play well down the stretch and change the script of the season. That's what we intend to do."
There will be more stress for all involved over the next two weeks.
Cubs fans should know how to endure it, having lived most of their lives with it.
And when you consider the days when there wasn't any at all, when the standings were irrelevant, it would seem considerably better than the alternative.