SAN DIEGO -- The Cubs did what they could to embrace the 60-game sprint mentality last year. Manager David Ross spoke often about the importance of the players creating their own energy, given the empty ballparks and the quick arrival of October.
Ross is happy to be navigating a longer, more normal path now.
"I hope we have to worry about going to the postseason," Ross said. "But, just not today."
Monday's 9-4 loss to the Padres marked the 60th game of 2021. After that many contests during last year's pandemic-shortened season, the Cubs had claimed the National League Central crown, only to exit the October stage in the first round.
The Cubs are aiming for another division title -- one that would be a fifth in seven seasons -- but there are issues to solve and four months to go.
"I feel like we're just starting, honestly," Kris Bryant said prior to Monday's game. "Last year was completely a way different situation than we have right now. It's cool to compare the two and realize that, hey, we still have over 100 more games."
In the more immediate picture, however, the next six weeks will impact the franchise's approach to the July 30 Trade Deadline. Bryant understands the landscape. He is one of the veteran core players remaining from the 2016 World Series team with free agency looming.
It has been well-documented that Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez could all hit the open market next winter, with Willson Contreras following after 2022. Overall, Chicago has more than a dozen players who could be free agents next offseason.
If the Cubs keep winning, maybe the front office adopts a buyer's approach to the Deadline. That said, the Yu Darvish banners around Petco Park are a reminder of last winter's shocking blockbuster trade that showed that president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has an eye on the budget and long-term plan.
"I don't put any much thought into it. It's wasted energy," Bryant said. "Whatever happens is going to happen. But it's cool to hear, when I'm running out to the outfield in Wrigley, all the fans saying they want me. It makes me definitely feel much better."
And that gets to the heart of Bryant's current mindset.
The Cubs star, who has been playing at an MVP-caliber level while bouncing between five positions this season, said Monday that this has been a fun season for him and his teammates behind the scenes. He called it a "180" degree turn from some previous years.
Bryant has a theory on that loose environment, too. He thinks there could be an element of making the most of what could be the final season for a group of long-time teammates.
"Maybe that's why we're having more fun," Bryant said. "It might be the end for [some of us]. It might be the last time I play with Anthony Rizzo. Who knows?"
"Or, maybe we're a package deal. I don't know," he quipped. "We've said it plenty of times to each other. I think that's why guys are really embracing it and enjoying it, because it could be the last go-around. But I certainly hope it's not."
Bryant and Rizzo were a package deal in the fourth inning on Monday, when they singled in consecutive at-bats and later scored on the same infield single off the bat of Jake Marisnick.
"We've joked in the cage," Bryant said of Rizzo. "Me being his hitting coach and [him] saying, 'I can't go anywhere without you. I need you.' Some stuff like that. It's just a good friendship that we have."
The Cubs are also enjoying things inching closer to normal.
Prior to Monday's game, Bryant chatted with a small group of reporters in person, as opposed to on a Zoom call. Back in Chicago, the team is preparing to host a full-capacity crowd come Friday, when the rival Cardinals are in town. Even the fact that the club is on the West Coast has been a welcomed change from 2020's regional schedule.
"It definitely is different," Ross said. "The last year, for me, has obviously been a lot. I think as far as the players as well, it's been a lot to undertake. And I think for the world, right? For everybody. It's just been a lot. We're starting to see some real light at the end of the tunnel."
Bryant added that it is just starting to "feel like baseball" again after everything last year's 60-game season involved.
"Sometimes you've got to have the game taken away," he said. "Not through a pandemic, which is obviously terrible. But sometimes being hurt or on the IL and having the game taken away from you, you find a way to enjoy it just a little more when you get back.
"I think that's what a lot of people are feeling right now."
And Bryant hopes to give the once-again packed house at Wrigley Field something to celebrate when this marathon is over in October.