'Hungry' Imanaga delivers in a big spot for the Cubs once again

CHICAGO (AP) — Shota Imanaga emphatically pumped his left arm as the Wrigley Field crowd of 40,088 roared its approval on a picturesque Saturday afternoon.

Imanaga had the Chicago Cubs on their way to a 5-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Japanese left-hander was ready to get something to eat.

"I was pretty hungry, so I was thinking about what kind of food, nutrition, I should take after the game,” Imanaga said through an interpreter. “This is my honest thoughts.”

Add another quality start and amusing moment to an impressive rookie season for the quirky Imanaga, who signed a $53 million, four-year contract with Chicago in January. With the Cubs in need of a lift, he worked seven innings of one-run ball in the team's first win in four games this season against rival St. Louis.

“He's a lot of fun to watch,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said.

Chicago (34-37) got off to a solid start but is 10-20 in its last 30 games. It managed just three hits in a 3-0 loss to St. Louis in the series opener on Friday.

Enter Imanaga, who allowed four hits, struck out six and walked none in his second straight win. He lowered his ERA to 1.89, third-best in the majors and the lowest through 13 career starts since Michael Soroka for Atlanta in 2018-19. He also improved to 3-0 with a 1.31 ERA in his first seven starts at Wrigley.

The Cubs are 11-2 when Imanaga takes the mound.

“He's six to eight innings, one, two runs, just every time it feels like,” Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said. "So for us just the confidence that he's going to pitch deep into the game, he's going to be super-competitive and we're going to be in it.

“He goes about his business every day. He works hard, and pretty calm. And then when he gets out there, he has the emotion.”

A seemingly overlooked part of Imanaga's smooth transition to the majors has been his control. He has 78 strikeouts and 11 walks in 76 innings, becoming the majors' first starting pitcher since George Kirby in 2022 to issue 11 walks or fewer in his first 13 career starts.

“From the outside, if somebody is grading a person as a good pitcher, I think it's a lot more accurate than if the person themselves, that they grade themselves as a good pitcher,” Imanaga said, “So I've never really thought about myself as being a good pitcher.”

St. Louis put runners on first and second with one out in Imanaga's final inning. But he retired Dylan Carlson on a flyball and struck out Brendan Donovan, preserving a 2-1 lead.

Imanaga celebrated at the front of the mound after Donovan swung and missed an 84.1 mph sweeper for strike three on the eighth pitch of the at-bat. The rookie finished with a career-high 103 pitches, 69 for strikes.

Then he finally got some food.

“So I got to take lots of carbs, lots of protein, and then thinking about what kind of foods I should eat,” he said.