Cubs blanked by Braves
John David Mercer - USA Today Sports

Cubs blanked by Braves

by - Senior Writer -

ATLANTA - It's no secret that Truist Park has been a house of horrors for the Chicago Cubs (24-18) as they kicked off another challenging series with the Atlanta Braves (25-13) on Monday. Not only have the Cubs lost 12 of their last 14 in this park, but they were swept away last September in what virtually ended their season.

At some point, you have to think their luck would change, and having Shota Imanaga take the mound was a good start. In his seven starts this season, the Cubs had yet to lose a game, as Imanaga entered the game with a 5-0 mark and a league-best 1.08 ERA. He has to be the biggest surprise of the offseason, as the Cubs are getting him for a fraction of what most starting pitchers were getting.

Per usual, Imanaga made life difficult for the Atlanta hitters despite not having his best stuff. Some would say this was his worst start of the season, yet he still went five scoreless innings with eight strikeouts. He did allow a season-high seven hits and a season-high three walks, but if this was considered a bad outing, the Cubs would take it every time, as his ERA now sits at 0.97.

It is the fourth-lowest ERA in history through a pitcher’s first eight career starts since at least 1913.

The only problem was Reynaldo Lopez was equally as good as he also continues to be one of the more surprising offseason pickups. After an up-and-down career with both the White Sox and Angels, the Braves took a chance on the hard-throwing right-hander and inked him to a three-year deal. Since then, all he has done is post a 1.34 ERA and after five more scoreless frames he continues to prove his worth. His effort alone kept the Braves offense in it just long enough to come through as they struck for a pair of runs in the sixth to pick up the 2-0 victory.

Anytime you hold the Braves' offense to two runs, you have to consider yourself fortunate, but you have to find ways to win those games when you can, which the Cubs couldn't do. It's hard to win games when a team only has five hits, let alone having all those hits come as singles. Seiya Suzuki had one of those hits in the first inning but was also a victim of the baseball gods as he struck two of the harder-hit balls in the evening, only to see them die on the warning track.

For Imanaga, this was the test that everyone was waiting for, as this is easily the best offense he will see all season. Right from the start, you could see that he didn't have his best stuff, yet he still made life difficult for the Braves. The fact that he didn't have his best stuff and managed to get through this lineup, allowing just seven singles, goes to show the type of pitcher he is, as nothing comes easy off of him.

“Imanaga is amazing,” Morel said. “No matter who is going to bat, he just keeps fighting. He's an unbelievable pitcher.”

Even when the Braves were threatening, which was the case several times against him, Imanaga never waivered from his approach and made the pitches he had to make when he needed to make them the most. The fourth inning was a prime example of that, as this was the first time that Imanga had to endure a massive jam.

After allowing a pair of singles to Adam Duvall and Michael Harris Jr., former Cub Zack Short worked a well-earned walk to load the bases with the MVP Ronald Acuna Jr up to bat. Imanga would fall behind 3-1 to Acuna and, in the process, saw his Manager, Craig Counsell, get ejected from the game for arguing a called strike on a check swing.

“I'm really thankful for Craig Counsell,” Imanaga said after the game, “for coming out and showing more emotion than I do on the swing. Regardless of if it was a swing or not, just him having my back I really appreciate.”

Once again, the cool, calm, and collective Imanga got back to work as he induced an inning-ending fly ball to keep things knotted 0-0.

Apart from a few singles in the early innings, Lopez did a great job keeping the Cubs quiet, but with a pair of walks in the fifth giving the Cubs a chance to strike first, it was Lopez with the last laugh as he closed out his final inning of work with a groundout. In what was now a game of the Bullpens, to begin the sixth, you had to give the Braves the massive advantage, although help was on the way for the Cubs.

Some of that help will come from the rotation, where Hayden Wesneski will now be back in the pen as he took over to pitch the final three innings. As has been the case for the past few outings, Wesneski looked great as he struck out the first two batters he faced before allowing a Travis D'Arnaud double. Known for their quick strike approach, the Braves stood by that calling, with Short following that double with one of his own to drive in the winning run before the Acuna single made things 2-0. Wesneski would bounce back nicely to retire seven of the next eight hitters in order, including the final six to end the game.

That would be all the offense the Braves would need as their bullpen did the job, but it didn't come easy as a pair of two-out singles from Miguel Amaya and Mike Tauchman off Dylan Lee in the eighth would go to waste with Suzuki lining out. Not scoring runs won't win you any games, but the Cubs were still alive entering the ninth as AJ Minter was called on for the save.

Looking to bounce back from a tough outing on Sunday, Minter didn't get off to a great start as Cody Bellinger opened the inning with an infield single to put the leadoff man on base. Then came the at-bat of the year and arguably the at-bat of his career, with Christopher Morel seeing 12 pitches before working a walk as the winning run in Ian Happ was coming to the plate.

Happ is having by far the worst start of his MLB career, but with one swing, all of that could be forgotten. Instead, Happ lost the game with his one swing as he beat a very hittable pitch into the ground for an easy double-play which essentially took all the air out of the Cubs sails. Nico Hoerner would then fly out to end the game as the Cubs struggles at Truist Field continued in this one.

Chicago will look to even the series tomorrow as they send Jameson Taillon to the mound to take on the surprising Chris Sale.

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