Shota Imanaga back to form as Cubs avoid sweep vs. Reds

CINCINNATI — The last pitch Cubs starter Shota Imanaga threw Sunday was a slider breaking away from Reds left-handed hitter TJ Friedl, several baseball lengths off the plate. But Friedl chased it for strike three, shouting in frustration as he headed back to the dugout.

In the Cubs’ 4-2 win, Imanaga held the Reds to two runs in 6⅔ innings, rebounding from two rough outings to look about as dominant as he had in the historic first nine starts of his major-league career.

“If you judge the body of work, it’s been exceptional,” manager Craig Counsell said before the game. “The best pitchers in the game give up hits. He kind of fooled us into thinking that it never happens. It’s a challenge every time you go out there, and he’s been exceptional in that challenge. But he gets burned when he doesn’t make good pitches, like every other pitcher in the league.”

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He didn’t make many bad pitches Sunday, limiting the Reds to five hits. The first run he allowed was on a solo homer by Luke Maile to lead off the third inning. The first-pitch fastball was at the top of the strike zone, where Imanaga’s four-seamer plays especially well thanks to its riding quality, but over the center of the plate.

He retired the next three batters and didn’t allow another hit until the seventh. Three consecutive singles — one of which didn’t leave the infield — brought in the other run.

What did Imanaga learn from his previous two starts?

“The one thing was, I have to be physically ready, at 100% — so, my shoulder, my elbow, my low back, everything,” he said through interpreter Edwin Stanberry. “If I’m not, then I’m not going to be able to pitch as well. So that was a learning process.”

Imanaga clarified that his arm and back hadn’t really been bugging him.

“I wanted to make sure I can rotate smoothly with my torso, with my arm,” he said. “And so I feel like that came back for this outing today.”

Hoerner still sidelined

Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner (fracture in his right hand) joined his fellow infielders taking ground balls before the game but was still out of the lineup for the third consecutive game. But it represented progress.

“We’re going to give us the off day [Monday] and see where we’re at,” Counsell said.

Hoerner served as a pinch runner Friday, so Saturday is the furthest the Cubs could backdate a potential move to the injured list as long as they make it by Tuesday. But the team isn’t counting out the possibility that Hoerner could return earlier.

“If we didn’t have hope, we’d put him on the injured list,” Counsell said. “From what the doctors say and from how he’s feeling, there’s enough hope that we feel like it’s worth waiting.”

To get another left-handed batter in the lineup against Reds right-handed starter Frankie Montas, the Cubs started Michael Busch at second base. Busch was a utility player with the Dodgers, but when he has been in the starting lineup for the Cubs this year, he exclusively had played first base before Sunday.

Suzuki returns

Right fielder Seiya Suzuki returned to the lineup after sitting out for a game with bruising on his left side. He was hit there by a throw while stealing second base Friday. About a week earlier, the Reds’ Graham Ashcraft hit Suzuki in a similar spot with a 93-mph fastball.

Suzuki led the team with three hits Sunday.

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