Itch to pitch: Kopech set for return to mound

March 8th, 2020

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- will make his 2020 Cactus League debut on Tuesday, starting and pitching one inning for the White Sox against the Rangers at Camelback Ranch.

It’s another major milestone for the right-hander on the long road back following Tommy John surgery in September 2018. He has looked good throwing bullpens and in live batting-practice sessions, but the game competition will be a welcome change.

“I feel like I've taken it pretty much day by day, step by step, the way I wanted to,” Kopech said. “I mean, the closer we got to closing in on it, I started to feel a little more anxious, a little more excited, a little more worked up -- in a good way, though, just because I hadn't been out there in so long. So it's a lot of excitement going on for me.

“I've been a normal guy all camp. I just haven't pitched as much. I've thrown bullpens on schedule, thrown my live BPs. I feel like a part of the team, just now actually get to really feel like it.”

Kopech, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the White Sox No. 3 prospect, won’t break camp with the team, but he’s not too far removed from a chance to help the White Sox make that transition from rebuild to contention. When the 23-year-old arrives, he will be a different type of pitcher than last viewed over four starts in 2018.

His high-octane fastball still will be present, with Kopech having the ability to reach back and hit 99 or 100 mph. But as he discussed at SoxFest, Kopech has become a more well-rounded pitcher during this time away.

“Then, the type of pitcher I was was based off velocity,” Kopech said. “I had secondary stuff, but it was kind of hit or miss. But I always had a good fastball. Now I'm comfortable throwing the ball the way I'm going to throw the ball.

“I'm going to throw the ball hard, just because that's who I am and I have the ability to throw the ball hard. But more so I'm focused on pitching rather than throwing. And so, yeah, I mean, I'll probably still have the velocity that I want, but I'm really just one to command the plate a lot now.”

There’s no point for Kopech to solely rear back and try to throw fastballs by Major League hitters, understanding those hitters know he can throw a fastball and they can hit a fastball. It’s about working on all his stuff and using all of his pitches.

Kopech’s slider is a better pitch than it was in the past, by his judgment. But there will be a few other noticeable differences, explained by Kopech.

If Kopech is starting, and starting at home, then it must mean rain in the forecast. Two of Kopech’s three regular-season starts at Guaranteed Rate Field in 2018 were shortened by rain, and there’s an 80 percent chance forecast for Tuesday.

A little rough weather won’t dampen Kopech’s spirits for this start. It’s another big moment amid the buzz of this White Sox camp.

“All his pitches have looked very, very good,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. “Hopefully, he just goes out there and continues to hit the glove and gives himself a chance to get his feet underneath him in a game.”

Said Kopech: “I’ve had the support of my teammates, and I'd hope to be able to support them in the same way, because it's going to be a fun year for us, and it has been a fun spring so far.

“I want to go out there, and I want to have fun. I want to throw my pitches. I want to compete, but I want to go out there and I want to enjoy playing baseball again. It's been a while since I've been out there.”

“It's just the ability to be able to control my emotions and also repeat mechanics a little bit better,” Kopech said. “I was pretty herky-jerky in the past. And not that I have perfect mechanics now, but I feel like I've kind of slowed everything down. I'm working as one motion rather than a bunch of parts moving in and out.

“For the most part, I have the same repertoire of the same pitches and I still have the fire of a competitor in me. But it's just a little bit better.”