Shota Imanaga’s All-Star selection is a bright spot in this dull Cubs season 


CHICAGO — Early in spring training, Jameson Taillon approached Shota Imanaga before one of his first starts for the Chicago Cubs. It would only be an exhibition game in Arizona, but there was enough curiosity surrounding the new Japanese pitcher. Taillon noticed how Imanaga had found small ways to distance himself from his interpreter, trying to fit in with the team and make a good first impression.

“I was like, ‘Shota, today is your day. That’s a big deal. Today’s your start day,’” Taillon recalled earlier this season. “And now every time on a start day, he finds me and he’s like, ‘Today, my day. Today, Shota Day.’ And then when it’s my day, he’s like, ‘Today, Taillon Day.’

“Little stuff like that shows you he’s paying attention and making an effort.”

That inside joke eventually faded away, though Imanaga continued to engage and entertain. Imanaga was a relative unknown — almost an afterthought — in a baseball winter dominated by Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Imanaga’s reasonable four-year, $53 million contract still came with the understanding that the adjustment period could be long and difficult. The industry’s perception of Imanaga — and the guarded optimism in the Cubs organization — could not totally account for his intelligence, curiosity and showmanship.

Those personality traits will make Imanaga a natural as the team’s lone All-Star representative. Cubs manager Craig Counsell informed the team of Imanaga’s selection during a meeting before Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Los Angeles Angels at Wrigley Field.

“It was a thought in the back of my mind,” Imanaga said through interpreter Edwin Stanberry. “I’m very thankful for everybody in the clubhouse and the support staff. Honestly, watching the other players, I mimic what they’re doing.”

Imanaga has been a bright spot in this dull season, a compelling reason to watch a last-place team. The Cubs are 12-4 on Shota Days and 30-45 in their other games. Great production from a rotation fronted by Imanaga, Taillon and Justin Steele has not erased a bad offense and a shaky bullpen. Any hopes for a second-half turnaround begin with their starting pitching and a consistent ability to focus and make adjustments.

“Every day is a good day for him,” Cubs pitcher Hayden Wesneski said, and he wasn’t talking about the blazing start to Imanaga’s major-league career. It’s the attitude.

Imanaga did not allow an earned run until his fourth start of the season on April 20. He did not lose a game until May 29. His ERA did not begin with a 2 until June 21. It’s not just the numbers, though. The Cubs simply appreciate his vibes.

“The competition in this game is so hard, and it feels so intense,” Counsell said. “For most of us, we have to have this game face on. There’s just a joy to the way he competes. I think we are all a little jealous of that, the way we see him compete. At least I am. It’s really fun to watch. But there’s a real, genuine joy that comes from him when he’s on the mound competing. That’s special.”

That inner confidence and sense of conviction has led to Imanaga walking only 15 of the 373 batters he’s faced as a 30-year-old rookie. His 7-2 record includes a win and a no-decision in two 1-0 games. His 3.16 ERA puts him in the top 10 of the National League. His 91 innings pitched so far — with at least one more start remaining before the All-Star break — make him a workhorse in today’s game.

“He’s come out of the gates like, ‘Boom, I’m not scared of any of you guys. This is what I’m going to throw,’” Cubs pitcher Drew Smyly. “It’s just been really refreshing to see.”

The Cubs projected that Imanaga’s low-90s fastball would pop because of a perceived rising action that’s unfamiliar to hitters. The Cubs believed that unique fastball would pair well with a splitter in more of a north/south approach than the east-west plan he typically followed in Japan. The Cubs also noticed an improving slider that could translate into an effective major-league pitch.

The most important part, though, might have been that Imanaga wanted the challenge. He already knew how to read swings, set up hitters and develop a routine. He had thrown more than 1,000 innings in Japan and beaten Team USA in the championship game of the 2023 World Baseball Classic. He’s magnetic enough that pitchers like Smyly — a lefty now in his 11th season in the majors — want to know what he’s thinking.

“He’s just really enjoying himself, being part of the Cubs and being over here in America,” Smyly said. “I can only imagine how hard it is for guys — especially their first year — to come to a new country and not speak much English. I know how I would feel pitching in Japan. It’s just been awesome. He’s an open book. He’s come to me asking questions. I ask him a lot of questions. Because the amount of success he’s having is crazy. It’s like, ‘Hey, give me a secret. What are you trying to do?’”

(Photo of Imanaga: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)





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