McGraw: Imanaga won over Cubs teammates long before blanking Rockies

Mike Tauchman has been in Shota Imanaga's shoes, joining a new team in a foreign country. Two years ago, Tauchman spent a season in South Korea.

“I've been somewhere where I don't speak the language and it's tough,” Tauchman said after the Cubs home opener. “But you can really tell that he's putting a lot of effort into it. Obviously, that's not an easy thing to do, but I think he's doing a great job.”

What Tauchman meant is Imanaga has tried to get to know his new teammates and be part of the group, even though he's operating at beginner-level English.

Imanaga made a memorable first impression Monday in his Wrigley Field debut. The Japanese left-hander tossed 6 shutout innings with 9 strikeouts, 2 hits and no walks in his first MLB start as the Cubs beat Colorado 5-0.

“It's very clear that he's made that a priority, being part of the team, being in the clubhouse with the guys all through spring training,” Tauchman said. “Trying to mix it up with everybody. He's really funny, so we've loved getting to know him.”

Would Tauchman's Korean teammates say he was funny?

“Yeah,” the Palatine native deadpanned without changing facial expression. “Very funny.”

According to OptaStats, Imanaga is the second pitcher in the modern era with 9-plus strikeouts and no runs or walks in his major league debut. Pittsburgh's Nick Kingham was first in 2018.

“Going out there it was clear this is a player who's been in big moments,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “He's been through this before. He quickly just got into competing.”

Imanaga, 30, has eight professional seasons in Japan under his belt, with a career ERA of 2.96. His style quickly became clear Monday. He has good movement on his fastball, which topped out at 94 miles per hour, then keeps hitters off balance by mixing in a splitter. Against the Rockies, 12 of his 20 swings and misses came on the splitter. Imanaga also used a curve and sweeper, but was 87% four-seam and splitter.

At the start of the game, he walked to the mound to “Chelsea Dagger,” which he first heard while attending a Blackhawks game over the winter and chose because he thought the fans would like it. Imanaga wore short sleeves on the mound, unfazed by the 43-degree temperature.

“If I wasn't pitching and I was just in the dugout, I might wear something a little warmer, but I've always pitched in short sleeves in Japan and it wasn't something I'm going to change,” he said through a translator. “When I'm out there, my body's warm.”

One interesting part of Imanaga's outing is Colorado hitters didn't hit a single ground ball. That turned out fine with the wind blowing straight in from center field. On a humid night in July, he may not get the same results.

“I'm more of a fly ball pitcher, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's a good thing,” he said. “For now, since they're making weaker contact, it's working. But if they do start hitting the ball harder, then I'll need to make adjustments.”

The Cubs' Christopher Morel slides home past Colorado Rockies catcher Elias Diaz during Monday’s game at Wrigley Field. Associated Press

The pitching was impressive, but Imanaga already won over teammates with his personality and desire to fit in.

“Even from early in the spring, he's being one of the guys,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “Not being shy and waiting for things to happen. He's a confident guy and he's actually tremendously funny. He's just one of the guys. To see him show some emotion on the mound, you can tell he cares.”

Teammate Christopher Morel said it felt like Imanaga has been here forever, even though most players first met him in February.

Imanaga showed some emotion after a few strikeouts, nothing over the top or anything. He was asked what he yelled when he finished off the ninth strikeout with fans on their feet in the sixth inning.

“I'm not sure what I yelled, but afterward I said, 'Let's go,'” he said. “So I think I'm becoming more acclimated to the culture of the U.S.”

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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