Shota Imanaga’s brilliance kept his team relevant. Now the Cubs have to act


BALTIMORE — While Shota Imanaga waited for the right offer as a free agent, teams envisioned nights like this and hesitated. A flyball pitcher going against a lineup that swings for the fences. The 90-degree heat flattening his fastball. Fatigue setting in while approaching 100 innings before the All-Star break. In a risk-averse business, there were too many unknowns.

The Chicago Cubs nailed their evaluation of Imanaga, signing the Japanese pitcher to a four-year, $53 million contract that’s already exceeded their wildest expectations. Yet they are still tied for last place and only 3 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot. Welcome to the National League, Shota.

There isn’t a number to quantify the joy Imanaga exudes on the mound. The projection systems can’t account for how quickly he endeared himself to teammates and coaches. The scouting reports and recruiting meetings only reveal so much. It’s seeing him become proficient on the team’s Ivy platform and work independently. It’s understanding that he wanted this challenge.

Imanaga continues to keep his team relevant, outdueling Corbin Burnes in Wednesday’s 4-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles. Imanaga attacked hitters knowing there were deeper dimensions in left field after recent renovations to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. He navigated through six scoreless innings, demonstrating his pinpoint command with six strikeouts against one walk. He worked around three doubles, executing at the right moments.

“He’s calm, cool and collected,” Cubs outfielder Cody Bellinger said. “He’s been making big pitches all year for us.”

Now the Cubs have to do something about it before the trade deadline. A lot can happen between now and July 30. Bellinger, for example, exited Wednesday’s game in the seventh inning after his left middle finger was drilled by a 97 mph fastball, leaving him unable to properly grip a baseball. That will be another variable.

The Cubs are still only 44-49, even after winning five of their last six games. It’s not too late, though, when Imanaga, Justin Steele and Jameson Taillon are pitching like aces. The bullpen that had been so unreliable earlier this season has been reorganized with fresh arms and more velocity. Timely hitting against Burnes resulted in Christopher Morel’s 16th home run and two-out RBI singles from Nico Hoerner and Seiya Suzuki.

With the sizable commitments up and down the roster, Jed Hoyer’s front office is also not well-positioned to sell this month. That this is even up for discussion is a credit to Imanaga’s talent and preparation. The Cubs are 13-4 in his starts and they are blown away by his ability to process information, create different movements with his pitches and fill up the strike zone.

“For anybody who’s had a lot of success, it’s really easy to say, ‘No, this is how I’ve done it,’” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “For growth-minded people — like I think Shota is — you kind of always got to question that.

“You’re making the jump to the next league because you want to test yourself, and you want to be curious, and you want to play against the best consistently.

“Shota’s great at making those adjustments start to start.”

The snapshot from this start was the Orioles putting runners on second and third with one out in the sixth inning. Imanaga struck out Austin Hays looking at a 93 mph fastball, and then struck out Jorge Mateo swinging at an 84 mph splitter, his 100th and final pitch. Walking off the mound, Imanaga signaled to catcher Miguel Amaya and pointed at his own chest.

“Amaya’s sequencing was amazing,” Imanaga said through an interpreter. “He called the right pitches. I made a few mistakes, so I was letting him know I made those mistakes and he was correct.”

Humble is a good way to describe Imanaga, the team’s lone All-Star representative and a rookie in a very narrow sense. He’s 30 years old with more than 1,000 innings of experience on his professional resume. For all of the earlier skepticism, he closed out the first half with an 8-2 record and a 2.97 ERA in 17 starts.

If the Cubs can be so right about something this big, maybe they aren’t as far off as they’ve looked for too much of this season.

“Obviously, I was trying to fit in,” Imanaga said. “But the fact that everybody was willing to accept me — the support staff, my teammates — that feeling was a lot bigger than my want to fit in. The environment allowed me to fit in easily.”

(Photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)





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