December 5, 2022

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Kopech giving White Sox rotation a boost

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CHICAGO — For the second day in a row, the White Sox beat the Rays, 3-2, on Saturday at Guaranteed Rate Field. Just like they did on Friday, the Sox won thanks to a short but effective outing from one of their young starters. After Dylan Cease did the job on Friday, Michael Kopech was the man on Saturday.

Kopech recovered from a wobbly 25-pitch first inning and needed just 50 more pitches to get through the next four. After working around three baserunners to allow one unearned run in the first, Kopech faced one more batter than the minimum the rest of the way.

“I settled in, definitely. First couple innings, I think I went out there without really an idea of anything, just overthinking a bit,” the 25-year-old Kopech said. “Then I was able to find my groove and stay in there and give the team a chance, at least, and that’s all I was worried about. So I was satisfied with the day.”

Kopech struck out five, and his two walks both came in the first inning to Brandon Lowe and Yandy Díaz. The only other baserunners Kopech allowed were on a first-inning single by Randy Arozarena and a hit-by-pitch to Taylor Walls in the second. Kopech was perfect in the third through fifth.

As a starter, Kopech has the time to make adjustments as the game develops. That’s an advantage he recognizes he did not have when he was coming out of the bullpen earlier in his career. On Saturday, he said he was able to get more efficient after the first inning and adjust his pitch mix.

“I thought I threw some good sliders early on, but I’ve kind of been sporadic with my fastball,” Kopech said. “They weren’t playing very well off of each other, so I didn’t get an opportunity to use my slider how I usually would. Luckily, working off that high fastball with my curveball seemed to be something I could do today, so I leaned on that a bit heavier than I ever have. And I was happy with it.”

Under different circumstances, Kopech might have gone deeper into the game. But he made only two starts in Spring Training and was on his second start of the regular season. Manager Tony La Russa said that Kopech would typically have made about six starts in Spring Training alone, so keeping him from facing too many batters early in the season is important for preserving Kopech’s arm strength in the months to come.

“The better he pitches, the longer he lasts, the better it is for us,” La Russa said. “But at some point, when a guy starts to lose it, too, bad things happen. 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.”

With Lucas Giolito (abdominal strain) and Lance Lynn (right knee tendon tear) both on the injured list, the White Sox need Kopech and Cease to keep pitching like they have through their first two starts. Their performance so far has helped propel Chicago to a 6-2 start.

The strength and depth of the White Sox bullpen has also been a key to winning without two of their best starters.

The White Sox relievers cruised through the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. On Friday night, La Russa used Aaron Bummer and Kendall Graveman in those spots, but Saturday he was able to lean on Reynaldo López, José Ruiz and Bennett Sousa before giving the ball to closer Liam Hendriks in the ninth. Hendriks made it interesting, loading the bases before punching out Walls on a 2-2 slider for the save.

“That was such a healthy thing for our club,” La Russa said of his bullpen. “They did it in Detroit, too. It’s such a long season, and if we’ve got a chance to win a bunch of games, that bullpen, everybody’s got to take some real clutch must-do situations.”

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