It was a game of firsts for the White Sox Friday night in Anaheim, beginning with their first victory of 2021 via a 12-8 win over the Angels at Angel Stadium.
Michael Kopech pitched in a regular-season game for the first time since Sept. 5, 2018.
Tony La Russa won a game as a manager for the first time since the Cardinals claimed the 2011 World Series over the Rangers. And Yermin Mercedes, who had just one previous at-bat, punctuated his first big league start with not just his first career hit but his first five-hit game.
Mercedes joined Washington's Cecil Travis (5/16/1933) as the only MLB players in the Modern Era to have five hits in their first career start.
“There was definitely smiles all around. Most of them from Yerm,” said Kopech of Mercedes' big night. “It was really cool, man. I want everybody on our team to have success and a guy like that who's been wanting to debut for a really long time to show up and make history, it’s crazy. It’s awesome.”
Kopech, who last appeared as a starter before undergoing Tommy John surgery, protected a 7-6 lead by throwing a perfect sixth and seventh inning in relief. The right-hander threw 21 of his 33 pitches for strikes, fanned three, and maxed out at 99.4 mph with his fastball, per Statcast. He also mixed in 10 sliders. The right-hander departed after walking Mike Trout to open the eighth, but Evan Marshall and Liam Hendriks finished off the frame scoreless.
Friday’s effort marked Kopech’s second career win in his fifth career appearance.
“I didn’t even know I got the win. I thought that was Foster’s,” said Kopech, referring to Matt Foster, who almost pitched out of a fifth-inning jam in relief of starter Dallas Keuchel, but allowed two inherited runners to score on Adam Eaton’s two-out, three-base error in right field. “That’s great. I’m excited about that.”
“The number one reason he was out there, we think he could help us,” said La Russa of Kopech. “The longer he pitched, the more it was evident we were going to ride him.”
La Russa, meanwhile, picked up win No. 2,729 as a manager and his first with the White Sox since 1986. The White Sox built a 7-1 lead behind the third career grand slam from José Abreu -- which gave him 199 homers overall -- but watched the Angels slice the deficit to one by scoring six runs (three earned) off Keuchel in four-plus innings.
Hendriks picked up his first White Sox save by throwing 1 1/3 innings with two strikeouts and two runs allowed on Shohei Ohtani's ninth-inning homer. He got an assist from Luis Robert in the eighth, as the center fielder hauled in Jose Iglesias’ long drive to right-center field with two runners on and two outs.
So, it was a rewarding experience for La Russa, who will manage regular-season game No. 5,100 on Saturday. But it was not an easy one.
“I’m thrilled. That’s why they keep score,” La Russa said. “For the guys to come out today and turn it loose like we did, and for them to come close, they have a really good team over there, and for us to hang in there, got some of the heroics out of our relievers, it’s well-deserved. It was so much in doubt, that I’m only now beginning to enjoy it.”
After going 14-0 against southpaw starters in 2020, the White Sox improved to 1-0 against left-handed starters this season by defeating Andrew Heaney. The White Sox have not lost to a game started by a left-hander since Sept. 28, 2019, when Tyler Alexander started for the Tigers, although he did not factor in the final decision.
Usual suspects such as Abreu and Tim Anderson, who homered to start a five-run ninth, contributed to that ongoing southpaw dominance. But Mercedes, who added four RBIs to his five hits, was a new addition of offensive firepower.
“So I don’t want to do too much,” an ecstatic Mercedes said. “Every at-bat, I want to stay in my space, stay there. You have one hit or two hits just stay there, don’t do too much. That’s what I’m thinking about.”
“He made history,” said Abreu through interpreter Billy Russo. “We as the White Sox are to be very proud about what he did today.”