2 Cubs Rookie of the Year candidates continue bolstering their candidacies

It's scary to think where Chicago may find itself without the contributions of these guys.
Miami Marlins v Chicago Cubs - Game Two
Miami Marlins v Chicago Cubs - Game Two / Nuccio DiNuzzo/GettyImages

A lesser team may have folded in the nightcap of Saturday's twin bill after a brutal loss in the first game, in which Adbert Alzolay blew his fourth save of the month and the Cubs' bats wasted a two-on, nobody out situation in the bottom of the ninth.

Instead, Shota Imanaga gave Craig Counsell six innings of quality work, allowing just a pair of earned runs - the first he's allowed on the year - and Michael Busch came up with a huge two-run single, raising his OPS to 1.061, the fourth-best mark in MLB entering action Sunday. Their efforts helped the Cubs come away with a 5-3 win, giving them the opportunity for a series win in the finale behind Kyle Hendricks at Wrigley Field.

“I thought Shota pitched well,” manager Craig Counsell told MLB.com after the game. “He did a nice job, got us six innings in the second game with a doubleheader, which was great, and kept runs off the board. So, another good start. That’s four good starts for Shota.”

The early returns on Imanaga have exceeded any and all expectations: four starts, 21 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings of work - and a 0.84 ERA to go along with a 0.750 WHIP. He's pitched like an ace, filling the void left by Justin Steele's injury here in the early going and giving Counsell a legitimate stopper taking the ball every five days.

The Michael Busch trade looks better by the day for the Cubs

Imanaga is an early NL Rookie of the Year contender - but one of his biggest challengers in that race is in the same dugout in Busch, who continues to pile up quality at-bats in his first extended taste of big league action. The Cubs first baseman, who sat out in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader, returned in the evening content and made his presence felt, going 2-for-4 with a pair of hits, two RBI and a run scored.

With Seiya Suzuki (and now Ian Happ) sidelined, there's not much in terms of a margin for error for this team and Busch has more than picked up the slack. There are signs Cody Bellinger is starting to get his timing down and the two could give Counsell a pair of powerful left-handed bats in the middle of his lineup.

The big story here in April is a Cubs team that's been anything but perfect - but is still on pace for its best record in more than a half-decade. And a big reason why is the contributions it's gotten from Busch and Imanaga, who look ready to help Chicago bring home a division crown for the first time in a full 162-game season since 2018.