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3 takeaways from the Chicago Cubs’ sweep-avoiding 4-2 win over Reds, including Shota Imanaga’s return to form

CINCINNATI — Failing to take advantage with runners in scoring position has been a key piece of the Chicago Cubs’ anemic offensive production over the past month.

Although they again didn’t fully capitalize on their opportunities Sunday at Great American Ball Park, left fielder Ian Happ’s three-run double in the first inning off Cincinnati Reds starter Frankie Montas gave the Cubs an early cushion as they held on for a 4-2 victory.

The Cubs (32-34) finished 2 for 15 with runners in scoring position and left 12 on base, but they got the win they desperately needed to avoid a four-game sweep.

Miscues in seemingly small moments have turned into game-affecting sequences that hurt the Cubs during their slide, including this series. Happ, though, delivered a well-executed throw to second base with the Reds threatening in the seventh with two on and nobody out to derail a potential big inning.

Santiago Espinal’s RBI single cut the Cubs lead to two, and he tried to stretch out a double that would have put runners on second and third. Instead, Happ’s outfield assist to David Bote notched the first out, and the next two Reds struck out to end the inning.

“At that point you’re fighting 27 outs,” Happ said, “so when you can get one there, kill the momentum a little bit, puts us in a spot where we have a guy coming out of the bullpen that can strike somebody out, that can have the ability to get out of that without allowing another run, it’s huge. Two-run lead versus one-run lead is a big deal.”

The Cubs are off Monday before beginning a three-game road series against the Tampa Bay Rays. Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s game.

1. Shota Imanaga returned to form.

The Cubs fully expected Imanaga to be challenged at some point after an electric beginning to his big-league career.

Coming off two rough outings versus the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago White Sox in which Imanaga surrendered 12 runs (eight earned) in 8 2/3 innings, he regained his form Sunday. Imanaga held the Reds to two runs and five hits in 6 2/3 innings while walking one and striking out seven on 94 pitches.

“Obviously it feels good to win. The most important thing is the team winning,” Imanaga said through interpreter Edwin Stanberry. “And then I would say the second thing would be the game that I pitched helped the team win. I was able to do that today, so it feels good.”

Imanaga has issued only 11 walks this season, the fewest by a Cubs pitcher in his first 12 career starts since 1901. Meanwhile, the lefty’s 72 strikeouts trail only Kerry Wood (107 in 1998) and Mark Prior (86 in 2002) for the most by a Cubs starter through 12 career starts since 1901.

The limited walks has been particularly encouraging for Imanaga, even on days he doesn’t have his best stuff, such as his previous two outings. He does well to avoid self-inflicted trouble, allowing one walk or fewer in 10 of his 12 starts.

“(The Reds) were very aggressive early on the fastball, and then as he went through, he sprinkled in some off-speed first pitch,” manager Craig Counsell said. “And once he got ahead of hitters he was really, really good.”

2. Dansby Swanson is heating up.

The Cubs need multiple hitters to get rolling offensively, and with Happ getting locked in over the last 2 1/2 weeks, Swanson appears to be among the hitters in the process of heating up.

In the last three games of the series, Swanson went 6 for 12 with three doubles, one home run and two RBIs. That’s the most hits the shortstop has tallied over a three-game stretch since September.

All while swapping his typical high-socks look for low pants the last three days.

“Just trying to switch things up a little bit, see if we can get some different mojo going,” Swanson said this weekend. “Definitely been putting in the work and so it’s nice to be able to see some rewards.”

With second baseman Nico Hoerner’s availability this week uncertain as the Cubs weigh a stint on the injured list due to a fracture in his right hand and with inconsistent offensive production elsewhere in the lineup, Swanson stepping up and providing power in the process could provide a boost for a still-searching offense.

3. The Mark Leiter Jr.-Héctor Neris combo continues to provide stability.

The Cubs entered the season feeling comfortable with their mix of relief options for high-leverage, late-inning spots.

Injuries to Adbert Alzolay and Julian Merryweather have forced Counsell to get creative at times in the eighth and ninth innings. But the presence of right-handers Mark Leiter Jr. and Héctor Neris gives the Cubs at least two reliable options, and so far both have thrived.

Leiter entered in the seventh to replace Imanaga and struck out Jake Fraley to strand a runner at third. He followed that with a scoreless eighth, and Neris followed with a perfect ninth to lock down the win.

“By nature, their jobs, they pitch in close games a lot, but we’ve probably given them less room for air than most and that’s hard pitching like that,” Counsell said. “But they’ve done a good job and both have stepped up and got big outs in big moments in both situations.

“It’s never too big for either of them. They’re always in the moment very well. I think it showed up today.”

Leiter has nine holds and has struck out 31.5% of the batters he has faced, while Neris is 9-for-11 in save opportunities.

“Everyone here, we have confidence when we come to the mound — we expect to win,” Neris said. “Everybody here is prepared to win. … Today we came in hungry.”

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