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For Cubs’ Shota Imanaga, victory extends charmed start to big league career

Written by on May 2, 2024

NEW YORK – Shota Imanaga continued what has been a brilliant start to his MLB career, tossing seven shutout innings Wednesday night in the Cubs’ 1-0 victory over the Mets at Citi Field. In recent years, the teams have made a habit of playing close, crazy and intense games here, and this one proved to be no exception. The outcome came down to a controversial play at the plate in the bottom of the ninth.

Yet, when it was all over, Imanaga’s sense of humor came through, just as it has through much of his charmed opening month in the big leagues. What was it like pitching in New York for the first time?

“The view from the hotel, I recognized it from Spiderman,” Imanaga said. “I was just like, ‘Oh, this is where Spiderman was.’”

Perhaps it was easy for Imanga to laugh. After all, the Cubs remained undefeated in his starts this season, though preserving that mark wasn’t easy.

Héctor Neris, who has been shaky to start the year, came in to close out the game in the ninth. With one out, Neris hit Pete Alonso then allowed a hard double to the right-center gap to J.D. Martinez. Jeff McNeil stepped to the plate with the tying run just 90 feet away. Five pitches into his at-bat, he lofted a fly ball down the left field line about medium depth.

Ian Happ got under the ball but didn’t feel he had enough momentum to throw it all the way home. Instead, he fired it to Nick Madrigal, in for defense at third, who turned and threw a dart to catcher Miguel Amaya, who tagged a head-first sliding Pete Alonso as his hand came up ever so briefly before he could touch home. Alonso was called out and after a long replay review, the play stood, helping the Cubs preserve both a victory and another impressive outing by Imanaga.

“It was probably 20 replays out there,” Madrigal said. “I thought for most of them he was safe. Then you see his hand kind of pop up from a different angle and I thought for sure he was out. I thought the whole time we weren’t going to get it and the last couple minutes I saw that different angle and I was happy. His hand popped up just enough and close call, for sure.”

The Mets weren’t thrilled with the call, but Amaya was “100 percent confident” that he wasn’t blocking the plate and Cubs players on the field watching the replay ultimately believed that Alonso’s hand never touched the plate before the tag was placed. The final play was both controversial and exhilarating — depending on which side you were on. It will garner the headlines and perhaps rightfully so.

But Imanaga’s brilliance on the mound deserves just as much shine.

“He was outstanding,” manager Craig Counsell said. “Seven really strong innings. Wasn’t in trouble really. It was crisp, it was clean. Just a really well-pitched game.”

After the Cubs’ scuffling offense scratched across a run in the fifth to break a scoreless tie, Imanaga made sure the lead held up. Without any insurance runs, the game never felt comfortable. Yet, in seven innings, Imanaga allowed only one Mets player to reach scoring position. None made it to third base.

By the time Imanaga was finished, he had etched himself a place next to another lefty who once took the big leagues by storm. According to researcher Sarah Langs, Imanaga’s 0.78 ERA is the lowest of any pitcher in his first six career starts since Fernando Valenzuela with the Dodgers in 1981.

Indeed, Shotamania has been building. After shutting down the Red Sox for 6 1/3 innings last Friday, Imanaga was peppered with questions from the Boston media. Did he consider signing in Boston? What attracted him to the Cubs? What did he think of Fenway Park? Days later in New York, media members went to Counsell with questions about the pitcher.

It’s not hard to understand the curiosity. The lefty has dominated in his first month stateside after eight impressive seasons in the NPB. And he’s doing it on what looks like a bargain of a deal that can max out at five years and $80 million.

He’s a Chicago Cubs pitcher now, so the what-if scenarios are irrelevant to him. One thing is clear, the Cubs are sure glad he chose them.

Imanaga’s debut came on a 43-degree, windy day at Wrigley Field. He took the mound sleeveless and wowed fans with his performance. With six innings of two-hit, shutout baseball during which he struck out nine and walked none, he set expectations high. To this point, he’s largely met them. He didn’t issue a walk until his third start, and he hadn’t allowed an earned run until his fourth outing. He went on the road and took it to the Red Sox and then on Wednesday night dominated the Mets.

Despite pitching in two large markets that are known for intense fanbases, Imanaga has remained unfazed through it all.

“He’s not scared of anything out there it looks like,” Madrigal said. “He just goes right at guys. His stuff is pretty unbelievable. He throws any pitch in any count. His pitch count is low usually. Seems like he’s been out there for 10 years. It’s funny, he’s still new to MLB, but you can tell he’s a veteran pitcher.”

That veteran savvy has shown up in his perspective. Imanga seems self-aware enough to know that his eye-popping ERA likely won’t last forever.

“There’s probably not that much data on me,” Imanaga said through his interpreter. “As they watch more video, they’re going to have more data and they’re going to have a plan of attack against me. Once that happens, just make an adjustment and I’ll need to improve myself.”

This latest start was all the more impressive because it came on four days’ rest, something Imanaga had yet to do this season. It’s a schedule he’s unaccustomed to as it’s standard for starters to go every sixth day in Japan. But onlookers certainly couldn’t tell that this was a rarity for Imanaga. People who had yet to see him perform came away impressed.

“He can pitch,” Mets manager Carlos Mendoza said. “Fastball plays up. Obviously the split is a pretty good pitch, and then he’s got that little hesitation and that quick pitch with no runners on base to mess up the hitter’s timing. Overall, he was pretty good today.”

The Cubs are aware they’re not playing perfect baseball right now. Their offense is missing two key players in Cody Bellinger and Seiya Suzuki and not enough players on offense are stepping up in their absence. But the starting pitching – they have a 2.53 ERA in the team’s last 14 games – has carried the team over the last couple of weeks and somehow they boast a 19-12 record.

But that’s what good teams do. They win games when they’re not fully healthy and not playing their crispest baseball.

“That’s the best part,” Madrigal said. “We’re still finding ways to win even though we’re not clicking all the way offensively. That’s what great teams do, grind it out. Our lineup is so good, we’ll come around. It’s only a matter of time. It’s a special thing about this team. You gotta give a lot of credit to the pitchers keeping us in the game. It’s nice to grind those out.”

Of course, grinding it out got easier because Imanaga struck out seven Mets on the night and walked just one while scattering three hits. He garnered 15 swings and misses, nine on his splitter and another five on his impressive four-seamer. This on a night when he admitted his velocity was down from where it normally is – Statcast had it averaging 91.2 MPH, more than a full tick below what he’d been averaging entering the game.

The beginning of Imanaga’s career has few comps. According to Baseball-Reference, Imanaga’s 0.78 ERA makes him the first pitcher since 1945 to begin their big league career with six starts while logging at least 25 innings with an ERA below 0.80. It hasn’t happened since Dave Ferriss started his career for the Boston Red Sox with six straight complete games and an ERA of 0.50. Not even Valenzuela could quite crack this club. Though he had a 0.33 ERA over his first six big league starts in 1981, his career actually began with relief appearances the previous season.

“He’s been filthy since day one,” Amaya said of Imanaga. “Executing everything, trusting himself and trusting his strengths. Just go out there, have fun and be him. He’s always been doing it.”

(Top photo of Shota Imanaga pitching against the Mets: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

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