Paul Sullivan: Shota Imanaga -- or is it Mike? -- offers food for thought after Cubs' 5-1 win against Cardinals

Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Baseball

The rotation depth the Chicago Cubs pointed to in spring training was put to the test in the first 2 1/2 months of the season.

Now the Cubs are back to where they started, and the five starters who were supposed to lead them into the postseason are tasked with pulling them out of the wreckage of a disappointing first half.

Barring a change in plans, Kyle Hendricks will return to a starting role this week because of injuries to rookies Ben Brown and Jordan Wicks the last few days. Shota Imanaga, Javier Assad, Justin Steele and Jameson Taillon all have done their jobs, and now the Cubs are counting on Hendricks to pitch like ‘The Professor’ of old.

With an offense that hasn’t fully functioned and a bullpen that already has blown 15 save opportunities, it’s up to the rotation to carry the load to save the season.

As usual, Imanaga was up to the challenge Saturday, throwing seven dominant innings in a 5-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals before 40,088 at Wrigley Field.

Imanaga allowed one run on four hits with no walks and six strikeouts while throwing a career-high 103 pitches. He ended his day with a flourish, making Brendan Donovan flail away at a sweeper to end the seventh with two men on and a one-run lead.

Imanaga then pumped his left fist, twirled off the mound with his right leg in the air like Jackie Gleason doing his “And away we go!” routine, then added another fist pump while shouting to no one in particular. He said afterward that he was hungry and thinking during the crucial matchup about what kind of food he was going to eat after the game.

“These are my honest thoughts,” he said through his interpreter.

Catcher Yan Gomes heard that quip and shook his head while laughing.

“What?” he said. “OK, Shota, chill out, man.”

No one would doubt Imanaga at this point. He has been a breath of fresh air for a struggling Cubs team that is 11-2 in his starts and 12 games under .500 in the rest of their games.

Imanaga, who has a 1.31 ERA at Wrigley, was greeted with a standing ovation from fans in the bleachers when walking out to the bullpen to warm up and said he feels it’s his responsibility to get them a win.

“It helps a lot,” he said.

Adding to the Imanaga legend, he also has adopted a new alias. Imanaga has told baristas his name is “Mike” when ordering coffee because they have a hard time writing “Shota” on his cup. The Cubs had the nameplate on his locker changed to “Mike Imanaga II” when they came back from the trip.

“It started as a joke around the clubbies,” Imanaga said. “The nameplate I know costs money and is expensive to make. But the fact that the clubbies and the staff have accepted me, I’m thankful for that, and it makes me very happy.”

The Cubs clubhouse was festive after a much-needed win over their archrivals, who took the first four games of the season series.


Wicks was placed on the 15-day injured list before the game with a Grade 2 right oblique strain and replaced on the roster by Triple-A Iowa reliever Keegan Thompson. Hendricks had his best performance of the season Friday with 4 1/3 innings of scoreless relief but needs to do that consistently to prove he’s back.

Asked if he and team President Jed Hoyer have spoken about going outside to acquire another starter, Counsell replied: “I don’t think that’s part of the conversation.”

Has Counsell spoken with Hoyer at all about getting help?

“Look, we’re always talking about improving the team,” he said. “That conversation happens at all times of the year, but nothing beyond that.”

In other words, the status remains quo until further notice.

Trailing 1-0 in the fourth, the Cubs scored a pair of runs on two at-bats during which the ball traveled less than 60 feet. Cardinals reliever Chris Roycroft committed an error on a topper by Nico Hoerner that brought home the tying run, and Dansby Swanson’s swinging bunt resulted in an RBI groundout to make it 2-1.

Beggars can’t be choosers, can they? But instead of making Cubs fans sweat out another tight ending, Ian Happ’s three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh gave the bullpen some breathing room.

“A little bit of an exhale for sure,” Counsell said. “And with men on base, it’s a game-changer.”

Tyson Miller closed it out with two perfect innings to tie the series at a game apiece. Counsell let Miller throw the ninth instead of bringing in embattled closer Héctor Neris, lessening the angst at Wrigley, at least for one day.

Taillon goes for the Cubs on Sunday in the rubber game, which features an early 12:05 p.m. CDT start and airs exclusively on the Roku Channel. Gomes said the rotation has been a strength while the Cubs offense remains stagnant.

“That’s the beauty of a team game,” he said. “Our starting staff has done a tremendous job. There have been sparks of our offense picking up. Today a big hit by Happ. It was one of those things we needed. I think the offense will come around. We understand what’s happening. We understand we’re putting ourselves in the hole of not scoring much, but it’s not for a lack of trying.”

Counsell said he doesn’t intend on sitting any regulars, as he did last month with a mental break for Happ, who responded with 19 RBIs in 18 games since May 26, second-most in the NL over that stretch.

“Look, we’re not scoring runs, and that means certainly the at-bats have to improve, our timing has to improve, got to find some holes,” Counsell said. “And that’s how we’re going to go about it.”

But until the offense proves it can do it more than once in a while, the Cubs will have to rely on the five starters to lead the way.


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