Heading into the London Series, the Chicago Cubs had won 10 of their last 12 games. Their hot streak saw them go from 10 games under .500 on 8 June to just two games under come 24 June.
Behind yet another outstanding outing from homegrown ace and All-Star Justin Steele, their 9-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in the London Series opener improved their season record to 37-38, leaving them just three games back of the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds. Then, disaster struck.
In the second and final game of the series, the Cubs were cruising. Up four runs before the afternoon was three outs old, they were undone by a Trey Mancini two-out error in the bottom of the second that killed their momentum and allowed the Cardinals back into a game they went on to win 5-7.
Then, either because of jet lag, the inconsistency that’s plagued them all season, or a combination of the two, they were swept by the Philadelphia Phillies back at Wrigley Field, before losing two of three to the Cleveland Guardians in the very next series.
Unsurprisingly, some fans held the London trip responsible for the skid. After all, the team was red hot going into it and yet came out of it on a 2-6 run that put them eight games back in the division.
On the one hand, you could argue that it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Cubs. While, on the other, you could simply say that their post-London Series run is symptomatic of a flawed team partway through a rebuild that the front office doesn’t want to admit is a rebuild.
In February, the PECOTA standings had the Cubs winning just 76.3 games in 2023, giving them a 7.4% chance of making the playoffs. After their historic first series win in the Bronx last weekend, that number now stands at 79 wins, giving them an 11.9% chance of making the playoffs.
That’s pretty good given that they’ve actually underperformed during the first half. According to FanGraphs BaseRuns, which uses underlying statistics to determine what a team’s record should be, the Cubs currently project as a 49-40 team, while in reality their record stands at 42-47. One of the big reasons for that is their 12-22 record in one and two-run games this season, a problem that was at its worst as early as late April/early May, when they lost six one-run games in just over a week.
The bottom line is that they’re not out of it yet and given how bad the division’s been and their post All-Star Weekend schedule (they play Boston, Washington, St. Louis, and the White Sox before the end of the month), they could find themselves hovering around .500 again come the trade deadline.
While even that may not be enough to justify their becoming buyers, it may mean they decide to stand pat, opting not to trade their most enticing assets – namely Cody Bellinger and Marcus Stroman – in the hope that they can stay in the race through August and September.
The recent decision to release Bryce Ball, the prospect the Cubs got back in the Joc Pederson trade in 2021, suggests that they may be less keen to flip established big leaguers for lottery tickets this year, particularly as Jed Hoyer has said time and again that he wants this team to be competitive.
If the Cubs fail to be, the inquest will go far beyond a weekend series in London that prompted a difficult stretch in a season punctuated by difficult stretches.
And besides, for those of us Cubs fans who were fortunate enough to be in attendance, the London Series was an incredible four-day baseball extravaganza that began with a live broadcast from Cubs radio legends Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer in a pub in Westminster on the Thursday, before World Series winner Dexter Fowler led the Cubs to victory at the first ever Home Run Derby X to take place in Trafalgar Square on the Friday. Then, of course, Steele and Ian Happ inspired that glorious Game One win and it even looked for a sweet minute as if a sweep might be on cards until the Cubs defence unravelled and Willson Contreras did the seemingly inevitable, leading his new team to victory in Game Two.
What’s more, approximately 110,000 total fans attended the two games, making the excursion a huge success for Major League Baseball. Hopefully, at least a few of them became Cubs fans in the process.
While it may well have set the Cubs back a few games, I, for one, would do it all over again in a heartbeat and can’t wait to do it all over again next year, even if the Cubs won’t be making the journey in 2024.
Photos: Author’s own
Sean Guest is the Chicago Cubs correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. You can follow him on Twitter @SW_Guest