Before Saturday night, maybe White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech was in a little bit of a rut.
Then in the middle of a wild game that ended up a 9-8 loss to the Red Sox, Kopech restored order. He threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out five. In 31 pitches, Kopech got seven whiffs, relying on his four-seam fastball 24 times and his slider seven per Baseball Savant.
As for that rut, it looks like Kopech escaped.
“I think it was more self-inflicted than anything,” Kopech said Saturday. “I don’t think my stuff was necessarily bad. It was just kind of getting in my own way. Trying to do too much. And I think sometimes, a little bit of bad luck. That happens in baseball. You can’t really control that. But I feel like I was able to take two steps forward today and that’s a good sign.”
A dominant Kopech is of course a very good sign for the Sox. When they acquired Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera before the trade deadline, it was to build a bullpen of October-ready power arms. And when he’s right — as he showed Saturday — Kopech’s stuff plays against any lineup in any situation and figures to be a valuable weapon next month for manager Tony La Russa.
“He was super,” La Russa said of Kopech’s outing Saturday. “That’s the Michael that we’re excited about.”
A key Saturday was that slider, which produced two of the strikeouts and gave Boston hitters something to worry about other than Kopech’s fastball, which was its usual lively self.
“I talked to some of our other pitchers about it,” Kopech said. “I think it’s just my eyes getting too big when there’s two strikes and there’s two outs. It’s a moment I really need to make a pitch. I’ve been trying to make my pitches better than they are, which tends to do the opposite. So I think just trusting my stuff today was big for me.”
Kopech, who topped out at 100.2 mph Saturday, knows that hitters will focus on his fastball. One of Kopech’s keys to success is how he works in other pitches, and that went very well for him and catcher Yasmani Grandal on Saturday.
“It’s not getting too fastball-heavy when I know that’s the case,” Kopech said. “Or maybe have to check off a fastball and sit on a secondary pitch for me. I try to get a little slider happy and those are the pitches I end up trying to do too much with and they get hit.
“It’s doing a better job of mixing rather than trying to get too heavy on one pitch and I think that I worked well with Yas tonight and we were on the same page.”
For Kopech, the 2021 season has been a learning experience. A starter by trade, Kopech is working out of the bullpen, and pitching in big-league games for the first time since 2018.
The hope for the Sox is that he continues to improve and is ready for big moments that are yet to come.
“I think Kopy, the more he throws, the better he gets, especially when he’s out there on back-to-back outings or he’s throwing multiple innings,” Grandal said. “I feel like, with him, he’s been used to throwing a lot of innings during a year since he was a starter. And now he’s kind of taken over the role as a reliever. I think the more he gets to throw the ball, the better feel he gets, and we can go from there.”
ANGELS AT WHITE SOX
Tuesday: Packy Naughton (0-1, 2.57 ERA) vs. Lucas Giolito (9-9, 3.69), 7:10 p.m., NBCSCH, 1000-AM
Wednesday: TBD vs. Dallas Keuchel (8-9, 5.33), 7:10 p.m., NBCSCH, 1000-AM
Thursday: TBD vs. Reynaldo Lopez (3-2, 2.05), 1:10 p.m., NBCSCH, 1000-AM