LONDON -- A familiar song blared through London Stadium’s speakers as a stream of fireworks sailed skyward and exploded above the upper ring of the venue. The Cubs fans on hand were a long flight away from the Friendly Confines, but they joined together in a celebratory rendition of “Go Cubs, Go.”
“That sounded good,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “It was nice and loud.”
The Cardinals may have technically been the home team in the opener of this latest installment of the London Series, but the Cubs and their fans took up residence in West Ham’s house for a 9-1 romp over their rivals. All the travel, jetlag and pomp and circumstance surrounding the event did nothing to deter the momentum gathered in recent weeks by the North Siders.
The locals and travelers alike came for a show, and the Cubs did not disappoint.
Left-hander Justin Steele spun six strong innings, beginning with four no-hit frames and ending his day with three of his eight strikeouts to escape one last jam. Ian Happ launched a pair of home runs -- his batting gloves are off to the Baseball Hall of Fame -- and Chicago’s lineup churned out a season-high nine hits with two outs.
“That was something I'll never forget -- truly special,” Steele said. “It felt like everybody was on the mound there with me. Really exciting -- a lot of energy.”
After the win, Ross repeated his standard answer about focusing on the pitch, inning and game in front of his club, rather than zooming out. That said, there is no denying the importance of the Cubs’ climb back to the break-even mark, and now Chicago (37-38) sits one game back of that shoulder-relaxing figure.
The Cubs were 10 games under .500 on June 8, following a sweep at the hands of the Angels. Chicago has since picked up series wins against the Giants, Pirates and Orioles. That includes a pair of three-game sweeps against Pittsburgh, knocking them out of first place in the National League Central. The Cubs are three back of the division-leading Reds.
With the London Series looming, that last win in Pittsburgh before boarding the flight across the pond was much welcomed.
“I was definitely more anxious for Wednesday's game than most,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “I was like, ‘All right, let's get a win, let's get a sweep, let's get on the plane and enjoy it.’ And there's no doubt, I think that the way we've been playing and winning 10 out of 12 [going into London], it's certainly nice to come into this with a couple of off-days.
“It lightens the mood a little bit. And, listen, you hope the schedule doesn't push us out of that run. I think we've been playing great.”
The potential distractions piled up, but the Cubs maintained their focus.
Christopher Morel joined some social media influencers for some pregame videos on Wednesday, and then celebrated his 24th birthday with three hits. Happ chatted up a pair of Formula 1 drivers during Friday’s workout, and then put the Cubs in pole position with a leadoff shot in the second inning off Adam Wainwright.
The team had a private function at Westminster Abbey on Thursday night. Happ and Morel did a double-decker bus tour around the city. Players went sight-seeing -- many having family on the rare trip, too. The media crowds and requests were akin to a postseason atmosphere.
The Cubs then ran out to a 7-0 lead by the fourth inning, and Dansby Swanson applied the punctuation with a two-run homer in the ninth.
“That's part of coming here and doing this,” said Happ, who homered again in the third. “You still have to play baseball. You still have to go out and do your job. And I think it was a complete game. Steeley did a great job. The defense behind him was really good. And then the bats, the bats were on today.”
Steele said he went through a normal routine on Saturday afternoon, trying to keep things as close to his usual start day as possible. When the lefty took the hill in front of an announced crowd of 54,662 -- including celebrities like Bill Murray and Nick Offerman -- it felt different.
“Once I was definitely out there,” Steele said, “I felt the energy in the stadium. If anything, it just locked me a little bit more in.”
That energy lasted through the final pitch, culminating in that familiar post-win sing-along.
“Hopefully we hear it again tomorrow,” Ross said.