Cubs' advice to MLB after Assad's latest gem? 'Start paying attention'

May 16th, 2024

ATLANTA -- The sensational start to this season by Cubs lefty Shota Imanaga has allowed to mostly fly under the radar. The right-hander quietly keeps stacking up quality outing after quality outing, giving Chicago one of the unsung stories of this young season.

On Wednesday night, Assad continued his own impressive campaign against the Braves, spinning six scoreless innings while leading the Cubs to a 7-1 win at Truist Park. In the process, Assad lowered his ERA to 1.49 on the season. Imanaga has held the spotlight with a 0.96 ERA that leads the Majors.

“He’s pitching at an elite level, really,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said of Assad. “This is just exceptional what he’s doing. He’s off to a wonderful start.”

Assad has no issues with Imanaga garnering more attention at the moment.

“Shota's doing amazing. He's a great pitcher,” Assad said via translator. “I haven't really given much thought about it. I just try to go out there, stay healthy and just execute.”

With his showing on Wednesday, Assad became the first Cubs pitcher since Bill Hands in 1968 to open a season with no more than two earned runs allowed in his first nine starts. Assad’s nine-start stretch with no more than two runs allowed is the best to start a season by a Cubs pitcher since Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown did so in 11 starts to begin the 1908 campaign.

Assad finished Wednesday’s start with seven strikeouts and one walk, scattering four hits in his six frames. The righty leaned heavily on his sinker, which he featured 40 times on the night. Included within that sample were 12 called strikes with the pitch, setting a season-high for Assad and equaling his career best (Sept. 2 last year against the Reds) in an outing.

“The sinker has some depth,” Braves outfielder Adam Duvall said. “It’s not swing-and-miss stuff, but it just stays off the barrel. He gets ground balls when he needs them. I don’t know the metrics on his pitches, but the sinker has got good deception and it’s got late, down action.”

Marcell Ozuna was frozen by the sinker for called third strikes in both the first and fourth innings. Zack Short also went down looking on the pitch in the third. Lefty-swinging Jarred Kelenic took one on the inside edge in the fifth that was deemed strike three, too.

“He's able to put balls wherever he wants with everything,” Cubs catcher Yan Gomes said. “Today, it was mainly his two-seamer. He was able to get guys to swing at it early and get guys to take the back door. Once you start getting those calls out there, you start trying to push the limits as much as you can.”

“They had a hard time just getting swings off on it, really,” Counsell agreed. “And that’s just a sign of really good movement. I mean, it’s a ball until the very end.”

Helping Assad’s cause was the fact that the Cubs’ lineup spotted him a three-run lead in the first, allowing the righty to attack the zone with some margin for error. Mike Tauchman got things rolling by launching the first pitch of the night from Atlanta’s Charlie Morton out to left for a leadoff homer -- quickly ending the Cubs’ two-game shutout spell.

Assad was also working without the Cubs’ Gold Glove tandem of shortstop Dansby Swanson (on the injured list with a right knee issue) and second baseman Nico Hoerner (out of the lineup due to a left hamstring setback). Filling in up the middle, Miles Mastrobuoni and Nick Madrigal reached base a combined seven times and played strong defense.

In the fifth inning, Mastrobuoni ranged to his right to snare a sharply hit grounder in the hole from Orlando Arcia. The shortstop made a slick, sliding, backhanded grab and got off an impressive throw. First baseman Michael Busch completed the play with a catch-and-tag to nab Arcia in time.

On the mound, Assad clapped his hands hard in celebration.

“That was a wonderful play,” Counsell said. “What Mastro's done the last two days is not that easy. He's made multiple plus plays.”

Assad now leads the Majors with nine starts this season in which he has allowed no more than two runs. Going back to May 1, 2023, the righty leads the Majors with a 2.22 ERA (37 earned runs in 150 1/3 innings) among pitchers with at least 100 innings.

Maybe Assad should no longer be flying under the radar.

“You get guys to turn around and be like, 'What in the world?'” Gomes said. “Yeah, I think definitely guys need to start paying attention.”