With the trade deadline today, the Chicago Cubs' road woes apparent, and two other teams fighting them for the division, the pressure has ratcheted up on manager Joe Maddon.
Is it warranted?
Maybe, to some degree.
But some pundits and writers are talking and writing like Maddon's Cubs' future is all doom and gloom.
They say, 'Maddon's got to win the World Series to save his job, or at least get to the World Series.'
It's the same man who led the "Lovable Losers" to the franchise's first World Series championship in 108 years in 2016. The same man who has won at least 92 games every season the last four years, encompassing all of his time at the Cubs' helm. The same man who guided the Cubs to division titles in 2016 and 2017. The same man who paced the Cubs to four straight postseason appearances, a franchise first, including back-to-back National League Championship series appearances in '16 and '17. All for a franchise who hadn't won the NL pennant in 71 years before Maddon took over in 2015.
World Series or bust? Seriously?
With the potent Los Angeles Dodgers, who have incredibly deep pitching, possibly lurking in the NL playoffs? And if the Cubs get to the World Series, maybe facing the Houston Astros with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole? Or the New York Yankees or defending champion Boston Red Sox?
That's the definition of unrealistic expectations.
What happens if the Cubs lose in crazy fashion in Game 7 of the World Series? Or they're beset by injuries once they get to the playoffs or in the last few months of the regular season, among other scenarios?
How quickly people forget about the Cubs' and Maddon's success? And why?
Because the team isn't blowing away the competition in the division, which, by the way, has gotten markedly better the last few years. And now it's probably the best division in all of baseball. At the All-Star break, only 4 1/2 games separated the whole NL Central. That's unheard of.
Then, at the start of this season it didn't seem like Cubs' President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Cubs' General manager Jed Hoyer were fully backing Maddon. First, the front office elected not to extend his contract past this season, when it's due to expire. So he's essentially a lame-duck manager. That made no sense to me. What message are you sending to the players? We don't trust our manager? Hasn't Maddon done enough to at least get a contract for next season, then see where the chips fall?
As a result, with every loss, the players began feeling the pressure. And it mounted. A 1-6 start to the season will do that. But if Epstein would have completely supported Maddon, a different tone could have been set. And perhaps a different vibe to the season altogether.
Does Epstein deserve a ton of the credit for the Cubs' remarkable run the last four years? Absolutely. He'll forever be viewed as the savior, especially for how quickly he turned the franchise around.
At the same time, however, Epstein's not on TV all the time, not answering questions after tough losses, and not in the dugout during games managing the squad. That doesn't diminish his role with the franchise. Epstein's as vital as anyone.
Everyone associated with the team pointed to their offensive scuffles at the end of last campaign, resulting in an unexpected brief postseason appearance, losing the division to Milwaukee in a one-game playoff, followed by a Wild Card setback to the Colorado Rockies.
Since then, one of the major questions was, 'Was the Cubs' offense going to improve?'
Prior to Tuesday's contest, its run differential was an exceptional plus-71, second best in the National League. Not that that obviously tells the whole story. They've struggled with situational hitting and rely on the home run entirely too much. But run differential is a good metric for measuring success and most people would say their offense has improved.
At times, Maddon has made interesting decisions when it comes to the lineup and pulling pitchers. While that's true, you also have to consider the team he's dealing with. It's an aging roster, with players like Cole Hamels, Ben Zobrist, and Jon Lester, even though the latter has performed well at times this year.
Plus, closer Craig Kimbrel hasn't worked out yet, but the jury's still out since he's been with the team just a month.
In addition, Maddon doesn't have a reliable leadoff hitter. He can only play the hand he's dealt.
Is it entirely Maddon's fault that Yu Darvish, Addison Russell, and Albert Almora Jr. haven't performed to expectations, just to name a few?
Still, entering Tuesday's cricitical three-game series at the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs are tied atop the Central Division with their southern nemesis.
Don't completely blame Maddon for the Cubs' faults.
Does he deserve some blame if the season doesn't go as planned? Sure.
But what about Epstein, Hoyer, the front office and the players? They're just as culpable, if not more.
But the regular season still has two months left, followed by the playoffs hopefully.
A lot can change. Let's hope it does.
Contact sports writer Zack Eldridge at email@example.com, or (219) 326-3869.