If Saturday’s 3-2win over the Rays had come later in the year, perhaps White Sox starter Michael Kopech would’ve lasted longer than five innings. Yet two weeks into the season and still barely removed from an abbreviated spring training, Kopech was removed after throwing 75 pitches and giving up just one unearned run.
“Right now, I think we’re still in spring training mode as far as building up and not going to a certain level beyond that,” Sox manager Tony La Russa said.
In his second start of the year, the level Kopech reached Saturday looked pretty lofty.
Kopech struck out five, allowed one hit and got 13 whiffs to recover from a rocky first when he threw 25 pitches and fell behind. Jose Abreu’s two-run homer in the fourth was his first of the season, and the Sox went ahead for good in the sixth on Yasmani Grandal’s run-scoring single, leading to their sixth win in eight games to begin the season.
During the first inning, Kopech walked two and fell behind on Harold Ramirez’s sacrifice fly to left that brought in Brandon Lowe. The run was unearned because of Randy Arozarena’s infield single when he reached second on Sox third baseman Josh Harrison’s throwing error.
After Harrison’s throw was wide of first, Abreu retrieved the ball and his relay to second was well ahead of Arozarena, but the Tampa Bay left fielder fell to the dirt and avoided Tim Anderson’s tag, allowing him to advance.
The last four innings were different for Kopech, who topped out at 97.8 mph.
The 25-year-old righty retired the last 10 he faced. Four of the final six outs Kopech recorded were via strikeout, and his last pitch was a 96.2 mph fastball that Lowe swung through.
Yet because of the early-season caution, that was it for Kopech.La Russa hinted before the game he’d rather take a pitcher out too early than too late.
“The better he pitches, the longer he lasts, the better it is for us. But at some point, when a guy starts to lose it, too, bad things happen,” La Russa said. “You push him and he turns a good outing into one he has bad vibes about or he gets hurt. We can all see it; the delivery starts to fall apart, breaking ball starts hanging, loses some zip on his fastball, loses command. It isn’t that tough [to see] if you watch closely.”
Rays starter Corey Kluber, a two-time Cy Young Award winner with Cleveland, looked like his former self by retiring the first nine Sox hitters. But after Anderson’s infield single, Abreu homered to give the Sox a 2-1 lead.
Kopech didn’t get a decision after the Rays tied the game in the top of the sixth on Manuel Margot’s two-out RBI single off Sox reliever Reynaldo Lopez. The Sox regained the lead in the bottom of the inning on Grandal’s run-scoring single that brought in Luis Robert.
Even without Kendall Graveman and Aaron Bummer, the Sox bullpen was able to get the game to Liam Hendriks. Jose Ruiz threw a scoreless seventh and Bennett Sousa followed suit in the eighth before Hendriks earned the save to seal the Sox’ second win in the series. That save, however, wasn’t easy, as Hendriks loaded the bases with two outs but struck out Taylor Walls to end the game.