Kopech stays flawless, brings 100-mph heat in relief role

Right-hander fills up strike zone, keeps White Sox within striking distance in finale loss

March 31st, 2024

CHICAGO -- has enjoyed pitching out of the bullpen for the White Sox even though he began this past Spring Training as a starter.

This is Kopech’s job and the way he supports his family. But having fun in the process, which visibly escaped him at times during second-half struggles in 2023, only enhances the success.

“We have one of the best jobs in the world and it’s easy to lose sight of that sometimes when it is your job,” Kopech told MLB.com after tossing 1 2/3 perfect innings in a 3-2 loss to the Tigers on Sunday afternoon at Guaranteed Rate Field. “But at the same time, I’d rather do this than anything else.

“To be able to go out there and do it successfully at a high level, it means the world. Even in the position I’m in today, I came in with a runner on [first and one out], hadn’t done that in a long time. To be able to do that and get out of it clean feels really good.”

Kopech hasn’t allowed a run since moving to the bullpen, which includes two regular season appearances. Sunday’s effort went to another level when he threw 16 of his 17 pitches for strikes.

According to Statcast, Kopech recorded four swings and misses and three called strikes. He averaged 96.7 mph on 15 four-seam fastballs, topping out at 100 mph. He entered in the seventh with Javier Baez on first and struck out Parker Meadows and Spencer Torkelson on eight total pitches.

In the eighth, Kopech’s strikeout of Riley Greene was sandwiched between Kerry Carpenter’s groundout and Mark Canha’s fly ball to left fielder Andrew Benintendi. Kopech has the ability to go multiple innings, having been stretched out as a starter. He also has the stuff to close.

“I’ve said this to our front office and to [manager] Pedro [Grifol], and even to you guys. I’m willing to take any position that comes my way,” Kopech said. “That’s what you have to do in the bullpen because you never know what’s going to happen.

“Coming from the starting role, I’m sure there’s plenty of times I was able to get deep enough to hand it off to the bullpen. But there’s also those times when things go bad early on and you are going to need the bullpen to manage the rest of the game. If I’m needed in the back half, I’m OK doing that. If I’m needed for length, I’m OK doing that. I just want to pitch at a high level and I’m fortunate to be able to do that.”

Despite Kopech’s dominant performance, the White Sox were swept at home. They were competitive in all three one-run games, being outscored, 11-8, in total. But they didn’t do quite enough to play winning baseball.

Erick Fedde struck out seven over 4 2/3 innings in his Major League return after being the Korean Baseball Organization's most dominant hurler in ‘23. Korey Lee and Paul DeJong both homered, but Andy Ibáñez’s ninth-inning single delivered the game-winning run in a contest where designated hitter Eloy Jiménez suffered a left adductor injury during a sixth-inning at-bat and will be re-evaluated on Monday.

“These are heartbreakers. Three one-run games. Could have gone our way. Didn't go our way,” Grifol said. “Good pitching, good defense, three one-run games that we've got to find a way to win."

“This is the type of baseball that we want,” Lee said. “Obviously, the outcome isn’t what we want, but the type of style that the pitching staff had, our offense is producing some runs and we’re playing good defense.

“You could ask for a different result, but if we keep doing this, good things are going to happen.”

Good things are happening for Kopech, who posted a 3.50 ERA primarily as a reliever in 2021. Thoughts of starting remain in his mind, but they won’t overtake his bullpen focus.

“If I’m thinking about what my job could be tomorrow, then I’m not focused on what my job is today,” Kopech said. “To simplify things for myself to go out there and be able to throw the ball with a good level of intent, and not feel like I’m sacrificing command for velocity, it’s a good place for me to find my rhythm again.

“Nobody wants to say this, but I’ve just been out there trying to throw as hard as I can. When my body times up, it fires in a really good rhythm. So I’m able to find the strike zone a little bit easier doing that right now.”