PITTSBURGH -- The Cubs arrived at PNC Park on Tuesday clinging to threads of hope. Kris Bryant -- who is potentially out until Opening Day of next year -- expressed the belief that all the pains of the last week would only make Chicago's comeback feel that much sweeter.
"It kind of makes the story all the better," Bryant said in a pregame chat with reporters, "if we're able to pull it off."
And then the Cubs' season continued to rapidly slip away.
In a 9-2 loss to the Pirates, Kyle Hendricks went from flirting with a no-hitter to walking off the mound in the midst of one of the worst innings of the year for Chicago. And while Pittsburgh was piecing together a seven-run seventh against the Cubs, the Brewers were putting the final touches on a victory over the Reds in Cincinnati.
The loss was the seventh in a row for the Cubs, who are now on the brink of elimination in a season that began with World Series aspirations. Chicago's elimination number is down to one, meaning a Brewers win or a Cubs loss on Wednesday will seal the North Siders' fate and bring on an early winter.
For much of the Cubs' core group, that is a foreign experience.
They grew into a postseason team in 2015, when their journey to the National League Championship Series began in Pittsburgh with a Wild Card Game triumph. They then ended a 108-year World Series drought one year later against Cleveland. The Cubs have not been able to recapture that success in the past two Octobers, but they did reach the playoffs both years.
Now, players are left wondering what might be coming next.
"Yeah, I feel like that's naturally the next thought to have at this point with what's been occurring," Hendricks said. "I haven't really had a lot of time to think about that yet. But, yeah, I'm sure a lot of us in here will have some things said to each other and just figure out next steps going forward to just prevent anything like this happening again."
It was little more than a week ago when the Cubs pounded out 47 runs and launched 14 homers in a three-game brooming of the Pirates at Wrigley Field. The thought then was that -- even with Pittsburgh's struggling pitching staff on the receiving end of the onslaught -- Chicago's offense had perhaps turned a corner for the season's final push.
This past weekend, though, the NL Central-leading Cardinals came to Wrigley and swept the Cubs in a four-game series that caused Chicago's postseason odds to plummet from 58.2 percent to 2.6 percent, per FanGraphs.
“Losing those games to St. Louis, the way it happened, it's very shocking,” said Bryant, who is out with a right ankle sprain. “Obviously, this is going to be a week we're going to look at for a long time.”
The Cubs’ postseason probability winnowed to virtually zero percent after Tuesday's defeat.
"Stunning, for sure," Hendricks said. "It obviously doesn't feel good at all. Didn't expect this to be happening. So yeah, I don't really know what to say to it. We weren't prepared for this at all. It's just unfortunate that this group, we just couldn't come together and get the job done."
The North Siders came into the night requiring the baseball equivalent of a miracle and Hendricks did his part for the first five-plus innings in Pittsburgh.
The first 18 Pirates batters to step in against Hendricks did not record a hit, but that streak ended when Kevin Newman connected for a clean, one-out single in the sixth. The righty escaped any damage in that frame, but then saw his stellar start collapse in the form of five consecutive hits followed by an error in the seventh.
In that game-changing frame, Chicago committed two of its five errors on the night, bringing the team's season total to 114 official defensive miscues. The Cubs used four pitchers in the seventh, who combined for 48 pitches. The Pirates pounded out seven runs on seven hits and swiftly turned the Cubs' one-run lead into a six-run deficit.
"It went quickly," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Right up to the point where they scored all those runs, he didn't get beat up by any means. It was really well-placed hits on their part and it just multiplied. ... It just went away, brother. It went away."
Offensively, the Cubs finished 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11 baserunners, including eight in the first five innings.
A strong start to the night, inconsistent offense and a late collapse. It all seemed to summarize the Cubs' season.
"Plenty of opportunity. Failed opportunity," Maddon said. "And then you get into the latter part of the game there and it just did not want to work out for us."
It was a nightmarish turn of events in a season-altering week. And perhaps it will all lead to a franchise-altering offseason.
Maddon's contract with the Cubs expires at season's end and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has yet to tip his hand on which way the team plans on going with the manager's seat in 2020. There will be plenty of speculation about potentially trading some of the core to reorganize the roster. To top it off, a pile of players are set to hit free agency.
"That's their job, to make those big decisions," Hendricks said of the front office. "But I know how much I love every guy in this group and the things we've been able to do together. Even the guys we brought in, every guy has fit in perfectly. We feel like family every day coming here.
“Whatever happens, good or bad, we'll just have to wait and see."