The St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs have been longtime Midwestern rivals, but now take the rivalry international with a trip to London, England. Al Yellon, the site manager for Bleed Cubbie Blue, has writing about the Cubs for many years and is now in London for this series. He graciously let me pick his brain about travelling to London and of course, baseball. I also wrote a little London-themed piece as part of his series preview over at Bleed Cubbie Blue if you would like to check it out. It maybe or may not be Shakespearean.
Viva el Birdos: I think to start I have to ask you about going to London! What do you know about where the Cardinals and Cubs are going to play? Does it present any challenges them?
Al Yellon: The stadium where the Cubs and Cardinals will play is London Stadium, which was built for the 2012 Olympics. When the Yankees and Red Sox played there in 2019, the configuration allowed for a LOT of home runs and runs — one of the games wound up 17-13. They have re-configured the park so it won’t be as extreme a hitters’ park.
VEB: Have you ever been to London? Is there anything non-baseball related you are wanting to do while you are there??
Al: I have been to London three times previously, but the last time was 20 years ago. There’s so much history and culture to absorb while you’re there, people are friendly and engaging.
I’ve been to the Tower of London before, but am going to go back. That place contains so much of the history that makes England what it was, and is today. Also, of course, a sampling of the pubs that are such a big part of the culture of England.
VEB: Clearly, I am stalling to not talk about baseball because — between you and me — the Cardinals have not been all that great this season. The Cubs have been a little bit better, but both teams are currently at the bottom of the NL Central. The Cardinals experienced that whole curse thing that I wrote about in the preview on Bleed Cubbie Blue for their last series — that plus inconsistent defense and starting pitching, and ill-timed bullpen blow-ups. That’s how the Cardinals are where they are. How have the Cubs arrived at their 30-37 record?
Al: The Cubs started out well and won series from the contending Rangers and Mariners at home in April. Then they had a horrific May in which they went 10-18 and kept losing one-run game after one-run game. The starting rotation was doing well, but the bullpen kept blowing leads and the team had trouble batting with RISP.
Things have been better in June, especially on the current homestand, where they swept the formerly first-place Pirates.
VEB: Going forward what do you expect from this Cubs team? They are only (as of my writing this, which was about a week before the series, they are now four games back) 4.5 games out of first with a lot of games left — do you think they can make a big push to win the division? What do expect the Cubs to do around the trade deadline, or is it still too early to tell? Maybe the better question is what would like for them to do?
Al: The division has been called the “Comedy Central” and it seems true — all five teams are flawed in some way or another. I believe the Cubs have as good a chance of winning it as anyone, and so I’d rather see them add some bullpen help or another bat at the deadline, rather than selling off. But the next few weeks will tell the story of what they will actually do.
VEB: Earlier in the season there was a lot of drama surrounding Willson Contreras and his game-calling and pitch-receiving. You had covered Contreras for a long time while he was with the Cubs. What do you think about that situation — was there any merit to the claims?
Al: Jed Hoyer and the Cubs front office made it clear over the last year or so that they wanted better defense behind the plate and the unsaid words were that they didn’t feel Contreras gave them that, which is why they really made no effort to re-sign him. In fact, over the winter it was reported that they had, in fact, traded Contreras to the Astros for Jose Urquidy, only to have that trade vetoed by Astros ownership.
Most Cubs fans loved Willson when he was on the team. His passion for play and his good bat were big parts of the Cubs World Series title in 2016 and their playoff years after that.
But it did, in many ways, seem like time to move on.
VEB: Also on the subject of Contreras... What do you think is going on with him? He has been a bit unlucky on balls in play with a .237 BABIP (now .243), but the power just hasn’t been there. He is slashing .198/.292/.347 (now .207/.298/.364) with a .149 ISO ( now .157) for an 81 wRC+ (now 86). He is pulling the ball a career low 33.7% (same now) of the time while going to the opposite field a career high 28.8% (now 28.7%). Is this a change to his approach or an indication that something else is happening like an injury or age-related decline? I am just curious to know your thoughts because it is a real head-scratcher for me!
Al: I suspect Willson is putting a lot of pressure on himself. It can’t be easy for him, replacing a beloved franchise icon like Yadier Molina. (And just so you know, I have great respect for Molina and what he meant to the Cardinals.) To me, that’s probably the biggest factor. As you have likely noticed, Contreras is a guy who always wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s both his best and worst quality. The fact that the rest of the Cardinals are also scuffling can’t help matters any.
VEB: Is there a player or players from either team you are particularly looking forward to watching? Which Cub should Cardinals fans give special attention to when they are on the mound or in the batter’s box?
Al: Well, we have discussed Contreras, and I am definitely interested in seeing the reaction to him in London. Will the crowd be more Cubs-centric and react to Willson that way? There is a long-time Cubs season ticket holder who used to yell out Willson’s name whenever he came up to bat — this guy did that at Wrigley when the Cardinals were there in May. I’ll be interested to see if that STH goes to London.
For Cardinals fans, you should watch Christopher Morel. He plays the game with a passion similar to Contreras, and when he gets hot he can carry a team. Marcus Stroman — and I don’t yet know whether he will start one of the London games* — pitches with similar passion.
*He starts on Sunday!
VEB: Is there a pitcher or hitter from the Cardinals that seems to specifically have the Cubs number? For me I feel like the Cardinals just cannot hit again Kyle Hendricks even though it really seems like they should! I believe in 25 games he is 13-3 with a 2.69 ERA and a .242/.284/.377 slash line against him from the Cards.
Al: Paul Goldschmidt used to crush Cubs pitching when he was with the Diamondbacks and he has continued to do this in St. Louis. Lifetime vs. the Cubs he is batting .305/.404/.579 with 29 home runs — that’s the third-most for any active player vs. the Cubs (Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez have more). Always hated to watch Goldschmidt bat vs. the Cubs, although he was just 2-for-13 with five strikeouts in the series at Wrigley in May.
VEB: And of course, I have to ask everyone this, if you could pick a walk-up song, what song would you pick? Loyal VEB readers already know by now mine is “Voodoo Child”, the opening riff of the Jimi Hendrix version.
Al: I have thought about this for a long time and I think I’d pick “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by the Who.
That’s a really good choice for a baseball walkup. The these teams may not be playing to expectations as of now, they are both still in the division race and it is always fun when they play against each other. I am very excited to see them play in London (from my living room via my television, to be clear). Another big thanks to Al for humoring me with these questions. You can check out his work at Bleed Cubbie Blue!