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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Shota Imanaga Brings Talent and Enthusiasm to the Cubs

After eight seasons with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, Shota Imanaga embarks on the next chapter of his baseball career in the Windy City.

For Shota Imanaga, the experience of being the starting pitcher for Japan in the 2023 World Baseball Classic final left an indelible mark.

Samurai Japan's 3-2 triumph over the United States in the championship game on March 21 in Miami was a glorious team achievement. And in a broader context, the experience of pitching in three WBC games exposed Imanaga to the sport's wealth of international talent.

Now he's preparing to pitch for MLB's Chicago Cubs in the first season of a four-year, $53 million USD (about ¥7.7 billion JPY) deal, which he signed on Thursday, January 11.

The Kitakyushu native spoke at an introductory news conference in Chicago on Friday.

Speaking through an interpreter, Imanaga said, "The experience of the World Baseball Classic made me think that there is more to baseball, more that I can improve on," according to The Associated Press.

"And also, facing the hitters, they're players of unimaginable talent over here and it made me want to apply myself and face them, face the challenge here."

Shota Imanaga
Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer shakes hands with Shota Imanaga during the news conference on January 12 in Chicago. (Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Showing Team Spirit and Making a Positive First Impression

Before discussing pitching tactics before the assembled crowd at a Chicago hotel, Imanaga showed that he's in tune with the team's culture and wants to make a positive impression from the get-go.

He greeted the crowd with some lyrics from the song "Go Cubs Go."

Imanga said, "Hey Chicago, what do you say? Cubs are going to win today."

He introduced himself in English and then admitted, "I am very happy to be here and to be a Cub."

Imanaga added, "I want to say thank you to the entire Cubs organization for having me and I'm very excited to pitch at Wrigley Field. I'm looking forward to meeting fans and teammates."

Shota Imanaga
Shota Imanaga poses for a photo with his new Cubs jersey at Loews Chicago Hotel. (Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Getting to Know Shota Imanaga

Imanaga spent the past eight seasons with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars compiling a 64-50 win-loss record. He reached double digits in victories in three seasons, going 11-7 in 2017, 13-7 in 2019 and 11-4 in 2022.

Throughout his career, Imanaga's pinpoint control has been one of his pitching trademarks. He has 1,021 strikeouts and 280 walks in 1,002⅔ innings in NPB.

In 2023, Imanaga, aka "The Throwing Philosopher," was 7-4 with a 2.80 ERA. He fanned 174 batters and issued 24 base on balls in 148 innings.

Shota Imanaga in a June 2022 file photo. (KYODO)

The Cubs, who finished the 2023 MLB season with an 83-79 season and missed the playoffs, believe Imanaga will have a commanding presence on the mound and be a quality addition to their starting rotation.

"We're very excited to bring Shota on board," Jed Hoyer, the team's president of baseball operations, was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. "He's been a great teammate, he's very curious [and] he has a reputation of being an exceptionally cerebral pitcher."

Added Hoyer, "He wants to continue to get better, and that sounds like a perfect match for the Cubs."

Former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles closer Yuki Matsui celebrates his 200th career save on April 5, 2023, in Sendai. (ⒸSANKEI)

Take a Food Journey Around the World!

Matsui Embraces New Challenge in Move to San Diego

After a successful decade pitching for NPB's Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, veteran reliever Yuki Matsui is fired up about pitching for the San Diego Padres in 2024.

Specifically, Matsui wants to help the Padres end the Los Angeles Dodgers' reign as National League West champions (back-to-back titles in 2022 and '23 and 10 total division crowns since 2013).

"I'll be honest with you: In Japan it seems like it's Dodgers — all Dodgers now," Matsui told reporters on Tuesday, January 9 through an interpreter, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. "But we're in the same division and obviously they've been winning the division for an extended period of time now, so we really need to step it up and stand up and beat those guys.

"Hopefully I can be a part of this team to help do that."

Matsui recently signed a five-year, $28 million USD (¥4 billion JPY) contract with the Padres.

He had six seasons with 30 or more saves for Rakuten, including a career-high 39 in 2023. Starting in 2014, in 501 NPB games, Matsui struck out 860 batters in 659⅔ innings and recorded 236 saves. He owns a 2.40 career ERA in Japan.

The left-hander aims to be the Padres closer, but recognizes that there are no guarantees.

"The fact of the matter is, I haven't pitched a single pitch in the big leagues yet. Maybe it's not realistic to say that I'll be pitching in the ninth inning as we start the season," Matsui told reporters during a videoconference, according to AP.

Matsui added that he wants to prove himself to his new team. 

"Hopefully, I'm in one of those high-leverage situations to pitch in games," Matsui said.

Taro Daniel in a June 2023 file photo. (SI.ROBI/CC BY-SA 2.0/via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Tennis

Daniel Finishes Second in the ASB Classic

Chile's Alejandro Tabilo defeated Taro Daniel 6-2, 7-5 in the ASB Classic men's singles final on Saturday, January 13 in Auckland.

World No 82 Tabilo had a dominant serve in the championship match, recording 10 aces to Daniel's two.

Daniel, born to a Japanese mother and American father, ousted top-ranked American Ben Shelton 7-5, 7-6 (11-9) in the semifinals on Friday.

"You know, there is a tendency to get really excited in those moments and really anxious as well," Daniel said, according to Radio New Zealand.

"But [the key is] to not change the way I play really. I keep doing what I've been doing, what he doesn't like. There's a lot of energy from the crowd so there's a tendency to want to use that."

Looking back on the match, Daniel told Agence France-Presse that "it's always difficult to play against Ben because he doesn't give you much rhythm."

So what was the key for 74th-ranked Daniel, who represented Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to prevail against Shelton? 

"It's all about who can put on more pressure and that tiebreak was such a dogfight," Daniel insisted, according to AFP.

The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tournament of the 2024 tennis season, starts on Sunday.

Daniel is set to face American Christopher Eubank in the first round.

On the women's side, two-time tourney champion Naomi Osaka, who skipped the event in 2023 and gave birth to daughter Shai in July, meets French No 16 seed Caroline Garcia in the opening round.

Trainer Tetsuya Kimura ⒸSANKEI)

Horse Racing

JRA Recognizes Top Trainers and Jockey for the 2023 Season

Trainer Tetsuya Kimura and jockey Christophe Lemaire each earned a pair of top prizes for the 2023 Japan Racing Association season, it was announced on Tuesday, January 9.

Kimura was named Best Trainer (winning average, 20.9%) and Best Trainer (training technique), most notable for his work with JRA Horse of the Year Equinox, which Lemaire rode to victories in four 2023 races.

Haruki Sugiyama claimed the Best Trainer (races won) honor for his 56-victory season.

In addition, Yoshito Yahagi scooped up the Best Trainer (money earned) accolade for a season in which he raked in ¥2.73 billion JPY (nearly $18.9 million USD). This figure includes overseas races and National Association of Racing events (those administered by local governments).

Equinox
Equinox, ridden by Christophe Lemaire, earns a narrow victory in the 64th Takarazuka Kinen at Hanshin Racecourse on June 25, 2023. (ⒸSANKEI)

Lemaire, meanwhile, secured the JRA Best Jockey (races won) award for his 165-win campaign. He also finished first in wins each season from 2017-21.

The star jockey also claimed the JRA Best Jockey (money earned) prize in recognition of his nearly ¥5.1 billion JPY ($35.1 million USD) in winnings in 2023.

Oka Sho winner Yuga Kawada talks about the race after its conclusion on April 9, 2023. (ⒸSANKEI)

Yuga Kawada earned the JRA Best Jockey (winning average) accolade for a season in which he won 30.5% of the races he entered.

Kohei Matsuyama received the Most Valuable Jockey award, amassing 47 points in JRA, NAR and overseas races. The JRA news release stated the points are based on four categories: "number of wins," "win average," "earnings" and "number of rides for the year."

In addition, Shinichi Ishigami was named the Best Steeplechase Jockey and Kanta Taguchi was selected as the Best Jockey Newcomer.

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Japan's Yui Susaki (top) defeats China's Ziqi Feng in the women's 50-kg division final at the Zagreb Open on January 11. (Kadir Caliskan/UNITED WORLD WRESTLING)

Wrestling

Olympic Champion Susaki Dominates in Zagreb Open Final

Yui Susaki completed an unbeaten run at the Zagreb Open on Thursday, January 11, defeating China's Ziqi Feng 10-0 in the women's freestyle wrestling 50-kilogram division final.

After training for the tournament in Germany and France, Susaki won her four previous matches in the Croatian capital to set up a showdown with Feng. And then she maintained her impressive form in the title match.

"I want to train with foreign athletes and know the style," the 24-year-old Susaki said, according to the United World Wrestling website.

Susaki added, "I have the Olympics so I want to feel the power of foreign wrestlers, how to fight them, how to plan against them, [and] I had a great experience [in training]."

The Chiba Prefecture native captured the 50-kg division gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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Briefly…

With all 12 WE League squads having played seven matches in the 2023-24 season (as of January 8), INAC Kobe Leonessa lead Japan's women's pro soccer circuit with 17 points (five wins, two draws). The reigning champion Urawa Reds Ladies are in second place with 16 points (five wins, one draw, one loss), and the Albirex Niigata Ladies are third with 13 points (four wins, one draw, two losses).

Sanfrecce Hiroshima Regina's Mami Ueno is the league's leading scorer (five goals). The season concludes in June.

Quote of the Week

"I will take on that role. It gives me a sense of the responsibility that I want to continue while showing leadership."

―Japan men's soccer national team player Takehiro Tomiyasu on wearing jersey No 22, which was previously worn by ex-team captain Maya Yoshida, and filling a key role as a central defender, Kyodo News reported. 

The Samurai Blue face Vietnam in their Group D opener at the Asian Cup in Qatar on Sunday, January 14 (8:30 PM JST).  


Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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