Major League Baseball’s second series in London is no holiday for Chicago Cubs pitcher Javier Assad and his touring team-mates.
The 162-game regular season is only just approaching its halfway point, but this weekend’s two games against bitter National League Central rivals the St Louis Cardinals could still prove critical to the Cubs’ playoff ambitions.
So while the travelling pack from Illinois did briefly marvel at Westminster Abbey and other highlights of the capital, it became business as usual once workout day started at London Stadium.
“When we get the chance to explore and visit we definitely will do it and enjoy it and get to talk to the fans and get to know the area, but when it comes time to play we’re looking to have the same result and getting the victory and staying focused,” the right-hander told the PA news agency.
If the season ended today, the 2016 World Series winners would miss the playoffs as they currently sit third place in their division and three places out of the NL wild card spot.
Last season saw the Cubs finish 19 games behind the division-winning Cardinals, but the standings so far this campaign look very different.
With 74 games behind them, the Cubs sit just 3.5 games behind the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds while the Cardinals are bottom of the division after getting off to a terrible start.
Still, St Louis have won four of their last five games heading into the London Series which gets under way on Saturday.
Mexico-born Assad, 25, grins when he admits he is a huge Manchester City fan.
But it was memories of a former Manchester United and West Ham player that made the trip to this particular ground extra-special for the Tijuana native.
“It’s incredible,” said Assad. “Especially being Mexican, seeing ‘Chicharito’ (Javier) Hernandez having played here, it’s really, really cool to be sharing this field in this stadium as well. So it’s just incredible.”
Like his compatriot Hernandez, Assad has represented his country, most recently in the World Baseball Classic, the closest thing the sport has to a World Cup.
The 2023 edition was a historic moment for Great Britain, who qualified a team for the first time – and performed well enough to earn a berth for the next edition and a shout-out from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in Friday’s press conference.
Assad agreed that baseball being seen solely as an American pastime was hugely inaccurate and hopes events like the London Series and MLB’s Parisian debut in 2025 will help grow interest globally and shift those perceptions.
“It’s definitely a worldwide sport,” he added. “There’s a lot of talent in different countries, worldwide. It’s just incredible.”
Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras, who made his debut with the Cubs in 2016 before signing a five-year deal with St Louis in December, said his side was taking the London Series just as seriously as his old club.
He said: “I didn’t realise when I signed with the Cardinals that we were coming out here, so I was excited. I’m really thankful to be here with the Cardinals and to be in London, out of Venezuela.
“I never expected to be here to be honest. I think we’ve come here to do business. My main thing is to go do business the same way I go about playing in the USA. I don’t care who we’re facing, I don’t care about them.”