Get Chicago's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!

Become a smarter Chicago sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from CHGO’s writers and podcasters!

Just drop your email below!

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate CHGO Sports Community!

Shota Imanaga leaves a strong first impression in Cubs debut

Ryan Herrera Avatar
April 2, 2024

With two outs and two runners on base in the top of the sixth inning Monday, Shota Imanaga released a 92.6 mph fastball and watched it fly toward the plate. As Colorado batter Nolan Jones swung at the pitch, he was only able to tip the ball before it landed in Yan Gomes’ mitt for strike three.

With his first major league outing complete after escaping the jam, Imanaga slapped his mitt, let out a yell and hopped off the mound as the announced crowd of 40,072 erupted. Imanaga, who the Cubs signed out of Japan in January on a four-year, $53 million deal, led the way as they beat the Rockies 5-0 to take the ‘W’ in the home opener.

“I’m not sure what I yelled,” Imanaga said, via interpreter Edwin Stanberry, when asked what he said as he left the mound, “but afterwards I said, ‘Let’s go,’ so I think I’m becoming a little bit more acclimated to the culture of the US.”

“It’s fun to watch players who want to be in those moments, and he clearly senses some of the big moments,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “I also think Shota’s gonna connect with the fans in that way, too. It’s just his personality to do that, and I think it’s fun to see that emotion come out of him during the game.”

In his big league debut, Imanaga was everything the Cubs needed him to be.

He tossed six scoreless innings, striking out nine without giving out a free pass. Only three Rockies made it on base: Former Cub Kris Bryant reached on an error at third base by Christopher Morel in the second, and Imanaga gave up back-to-back two-out singles in the sixth before Jones’ strikeout.

Overall, he filled up the zone with 65 strikes on 92 pitches. He threw 16 first-pitch strikes. He led with his fastball (56 times), but the splitter (24 times, 12 whiffs on 15 swings) and sweeping slider (10 times, three whiffs on six swings) provided effective secondary offerings.

“It really to me was just how much he attacked the zone,” Gomes said. “That’s what makes it fun to be able to switch pitches and be able to go into a game plan. Going into it, it was being aggressive against a team that can be aggressive, but you can use that against them.”

Over the winter, the Cubs hosted some of their top prospects at Wrigley Field, where they got a chance to pick the Counsell’s brain. One player asked the skipper what he expected from him on his first day in the big leagues. Counsell’s response? “I expect you to be nervous.”

“I think we sometimes think nervous is a bad emotion,” he said when reminded of the story pregame Monday. “Like, nerves are good. There’s nothing wrong with them. You just gotta figure out how to use them the right way, and competitors do.”

Although a rookie by Major League Baseball’s standards, Imanaga isn’t a prospect. He’s 30 years old with eight seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball under his belt. Now, that doesn’t mean nerves wouldn’t be real for him going into his first start as an MLB pitcher, but Counsell didn’t see that as a bad thing.

So, despite any nerves Imanaga might’ve been feeling, how did his manager feel he handled the moment?

“Going out there, it was clear that this is a player who’s been in big moments, I think, and he’s been through this before,” Counsell said. “And again, that was kind of part of what went into all this. He quickly just got into competing. And so, like we talked about earlier, using the nerves to your advantage and it can elevate your game, and I thought it did that for him.”

There seems to be a conviction in Imanaga when he’s on the mound. That was evident in a second-inning at-bat against Colorado’s Ryan McMahon.

Imanaga mixed it up as he worked McMahon into a 2-2 count, but he then fired off seven consecutive fastballs as he tried to put McMahon away. It wasn’t until the 13th pitch of the at-bat that he threw a full-count splitter, getting McMahon to chase low and in for the punchout.

“It’s one of those things that’s really impressive,” Gomes said. “He just kept wanting to throw his heater. We were like 10, 12 pitches in, and I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s get this over with. Let’s go to the next guy.’ And he’s like, ‘No, I’m gonna keep going and keep going at him.’ It’s just his willingness to battle that definitely showed.”

With Justin Steele expected to miss at least the month of April and Jameson Taillon starting the year on the shelf, Imanaga’s performance was what the Cubs need more of from their rotation.

No other starter made it through five innings in their first three games, so the bullpen had to carry a larger load. Imanaga’s six scoreless innings, combined with the five runs the lineup put together across the sixth and the seventh, resulted in them using only two bullpen arms and allowed the team’s higher-leverage relievers another day of rest.

Not only will more outings like Imanaga’s go a long way toward lightening the burden on the rest of the staff, but it’ll also continue to help get the fan base behind him.

He’s already endeared himself to the rest of the Cubs going back to his first appearance at the Cubs Convention. He then fully acclimated himself in the clubhouse as they got to know him better during spring training, even going out of his way to not use his interpreter if he didn’t have to as a way to connect with them in a more personal way.

He’s done his part to endear himself to the fans, too, like reciting the words to “Go Cubs Go” at his introductory press conference, wearing No. 18 in honor of 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist and warming up Monday to “Chelsea Dagger,” the Blackhawks’ goal song. On the flip side, the fans in attendance endeared themselves to Imanaga even before he took the mound to starts things off.

“When I was walking to the bullpen [before the game], I was getting a lot of cheers from the fans,” he said. “It just showed how much passion and respect they have for the players.”

But from an on-the-mound perspective, what kind of impression did he leave on the fans getting to see him at Wrigley Field for the first time?

“I hope a great one,” Gomes said, “because that’s the impression he’s leaving on us.”

Get Our Best Cubs Content In Your Inbox!

Become a smarter Chicago Cubs fan with Ryan Herrera's Cubs Newsletter!

Just drop your email below!

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Scroll to next article

Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?