'I’ve got to throw more strikes': Kopech battles against LA

White Sox right-hander continues to build up as he competes for a rotation spot

March 7th, 2024

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It was just another Cactus League game on Wednesday afternoon, with a slightly less than full crowd at Camelback Ranch. But the Dodgers’ 12-9 victory over the White Sox had a little bit more of a regular season feel to it.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto took the mound for Los Angeles, with making his second Spring Training start for Chicago. Both teams had Opening Day-looking lineups, at least at the outset.

And if you wanted to get a look at the desired style of action for the 2024 White Sox, then study the South Siders’ three-run first against Yamamoto.

Andrew Benintendi started things with a first-pitch single to right, followed by Yoán Moncada drawing a free pass. Benintendi moved to third on a long fly to right field from Luis Robert Jr., with Eloy Jiménez walking to load the bases.

Andrew Vaughn’s sacrifice fly scored Benintendi, as Moncada and Jiménez each moved up a base. Dominic Fletcher beat out a grounder to shortstop Gavin Lux for a run-scoring single, and Fletcher moved all the way to third on Paul DeJong’s run-scoring infield single and Max Muncy’s throwing error. DeJong swiped second, but Fletcher and DeJong were stranded.

Play FAST. Be successful. Or so the story goes.

“Anytime you can get an extra base and move up 90 feet, it’s what you want to do,” Fletcher said. “We talk about that a lot in our baserunning meetings and just playing aggressive out there on the field.”

“Whatever it takes, to get ahead, score some runs, pitch, play defense and do the little things,” White Sox manager Pedro Grifol said prior to his team’s loss. “We’re preaching good baseball, preaching detailed baseball, technically sound baseball, and we’re going to harp on this stuff until we get it consistent.”

Kopech had a similar start to his first game against the Cubs on Friday at Sloan Park, in that he walked Mookie Betts and gave up a single to Shohei Ohtani to open the contest. Once again, Kopech settled down and struck out three while getting three ups over 2 2/3 innings -- fanning Chris Taylor and Muncy to end his afternoon in the third.

The White Sox are stretching out numerous pitchers to be able to start, and Kopech seems to be a likely rotation candidate with Dylan Cease, Erick Fedde, Michael Soroka, Garrett Crochet and Chris Flexen.

But Grifol won’t commit to any starter beyond Cease and his second straight Opening Day nod, with Kopech providing the same sort of answer postgame on Wednesday.

“I’ve done both roles,” Kopech said. “I’ve enjoyed doing both. I’d like that, stretching out and being part of this rotation, but I want to be part of the team however I fit in.”

“He’s getting built up to be one of our starters,” Grifol said. “I know we want to talk about it, but I think in about another week, we’ll talk about it. Right now, everybody is just competing.”

Los Angeles eventually claimed victory, scoring seven runs in 1 1/3 innings against reliever Touki Toussaint, who walked three, gave up five hits and watched his ERA jump to 59.40. This sort of outcome would be expected on paper, even in Arizona, with the Dodgers considered a World Series favorite and the White Sox viewed as a rebuilding squad with less than a prime contending chance.

Wednesday’s contest gave the White Sox a chance to show their preferred way of operating certainly plays against the best. Jiménez’s long home run in the fourth, raising his Cactus League average to .545, isn’t exactly playing FAST, but it works just the same.

Call it a solid learning experience for Kopech.

“You know the kind of lineup you’re going to face going in,” Kopech said. “Obviously, I’d like to be a little bit more refined, but it’s still early. Go out there and try to attack with strikes instead of feeling like I’m kind of falling behind, fighting myself. Good lineup and it shows that when you don’t get ahead, what can happen.

“I wanted to be able to throw all my pitches for strikes. I did that with everything other than the cutter. The slider ended up backing up a couple of times, but I still threw some good ones. Landed some curveballs, fastball was a little inconsistent today. That’s going to be a big part of my game, fastball command.

“Other than that, I was pretty comfortable with what I did. But I’ve got to throw more strikes.”