January 29, 2023

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Kopech out of rhythm after extended rest

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TORONTO — The pitcher who left a seven-inning shutout 10 days ago did not look like the one who took the mound on Wednesday night.

Pitching on nine days’ rest after carrying a perfect game into the sixth inning against the Yankees on May 22, Michael Kopech didn’t make it past the third in the White Sox 7-3 loss to the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.

It was inevitable to wonder if the long wait between starts turned into a disruptive factor.

“There’s two sides of it,” said White Sox manager Tony La Russa. “We were trying to preserve him, but it’s out of the routine to have that much rest. I think it’s an explanation, but I don’t think it’s an excuse. … We don’t regret giving him the rest, but it probably had something to do with it.”

Kopech’s off night was a blemish in what has looked like a career year through the first couple of months. Chicago, now 23-25, mapped out the reliever-turned-starter’s extended rest as a way to help the 26-year-old in the transition to his new role.

It all seemed seamless until Wednesday.

He hadn’t allowed a home run this season before yielding a leadoff blast to Santiago Espinal and a three-run shot to Danny Jansen two innings later. Kopech’s struggles with finding the strike zone, especially on his slider, furthered his woes as he matched a season-worst mark of four walks — including one with the bases loaded to Bo Bichette that drove in Matt Chapman in the second frame.

“They’re definitely a great-hitting team. I don’t want to go into what I’m about to say and make it seem like they’re not,” said Kopech. “[But] I think, as a pitcher, sometimes you can give these great-hitting teams a little too much credit, and then it becomes kind of a mind game. And I think I did that a little bit today. I tried to make my pitches better than they were and these guys kind of worked me that way.”

All of that amounted to five runs in three innings. In his eight prior starts, Kopech hadn’t allowed more than three. He tossed 85 pitches, only 46 of them for strikes, before handing it over to a White Sox bullpen that shut out the Blue Jays until Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s two-run shot in the eighth.

Kopech’s final line fell way short of what the White Sox needed from their elite right-hander. But the fact that a rough night brought his ERA to a mere 2.20 should indicate the type of dominant season he has put together.

Every new tactic the White Sox implement in trying to make his transition to a starter’s role a bit smoother will come with learning opportunities. This 10-day stretch was no different.

“There’s going to be times when they want to give me a bit more rest, this probably won’t be the only time this year,” said Kopech. “And there may be times when I may have to go on five [days] back-to-back-to-back and get in that rhythm, too. So, I pitch when they tell me I need to pitch. And if I don’t do the job, that’s on me.”

Before Guerrero put the kibosh on a comeback attempt in the bottom of the eighth, the White Sox had their chances to take some momentum back from the Blue Jays.

Chicago’s hitters continued the previous night’s trend. Boosted by AJ Pollock’s leadoff home run and José Abreu’s two-run, 451-feet blast — both off Blue Jays starter Hyun Jin Ryu — the visitors again showed up offensively despite the continued absence of some key hitters.

The return of Luis Robert and Yoán Moncada’s pinch-hit appearance in the ninth were also encouraging signs for a team faced with the urgency of a depleted lineup, a challenging schedule and a losing record.

No one is making any excuses, but nights like these offer a number of valuable lessons, especially for a guy in a position as unique as Kopech’s.

“I need to be pitch-to-pitch, be present with every pitch that I throw and be there for every at-bat,” he said. “Today, I was at-bat to at-bat, looking for a result that wasn’t there yet. It’s a patience process and I got a little bit impatient today.”

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