CHICAGO -- The White Sox have thoroughly enjoyed Michael Kopech’s bullpen work to start the 2021 season, with the right-hander retiring all seven Royals hitters he faced during a 4-3 loss in 10 innings Sunday at Guaranteed Rate Field.
And Kopech, MLB Pipeline’s No. 35 prospect overall prospect, has enjoyed his temporary transition to the relief crew.
“Yeah, I just enjoy pitching, so I would like to be able to compete in any position I can on the field,” said Kopech after Sunday’s game. “If that’s as a reliever or as a starter, then what have you. But I’ve enjoyed coming out of the bullpen as of right now.
“I don’t know if I would say it’s easier or smoother. You still have the same job when you get out there regardless. But it’s been easier for me to kind of tap into the mindset of I need to be competing as soon as I step on that mound. As of right now, I’m kind of just rolling with that and enjoying that.”
Sunday’s outing marked the third appearance for Kopech this season. He replaced starter Dylan Cease with runners on first and second and two outs in the fifth inning of a 1-1 deadlock and retired Andrew Benintendi on a ground ball to second baseman Nick Madrigal after falling behind at 2-0.
That 2-0 count was about as close as Kopech came to having issues against the Royals. He struck out three over 2 1/3 innings and 26 pitches, giving him 11 strikeouts against two walks and one hit yielded in 6 1/3 innings this season.
Of the 22 hitters faced, Kopech has retired 19. He has pitched on April 2, April 5 and April 11th, getting plenty of rest between his outings, but Kopech is prepared to work deeper than his 2 innings pitched, 2 innings pitched and Sundays’ 2 1/3 innings pitched, respectively.
“Yeah, I feel like I could be up for that at any point,” said Kopech of extended innings. “My arm has felt pretty good so far early on. I’ve been fortunate enough to get a huge amount of rest out of the bullpen how the past couple of days have gone. I’m going to continue getting used to it as the season goes on and getting used to using my arm a lot more on a little bit shorter rest. But if they needed me to go three, I would go three. If he needed me to go 10, I would go 10. It’s just the mindset we kind of have as pitchers.
“It’s not as cookie cutter as five, six, seven innings and then four days off and then pitch on the fifth day anymore. But it does work out to where I’ve thrown a couple of innings and I’m getting a couple of days. It’s a pretty similar mindset about the rest time, I guess you could say. So that’s made it a little bit easier to have that transition.”
While Kopech has been dealing -- topping out at 98.5 mph with his fastball and averaging 97.3 mph on Sunday, per Statcast -- the White Sox bullpen has struggled early. Closer Liam Hendriks blew the save and a 3-2 lead via Carlos Santana’s leadoff home run in the ninth -- spoiling Adam Eaton's go-ahead dinger the previous frame -- and White Sox relievers have suffered all five losses for this 4-5 team.
Those rough spots don’t worry Kopech or manager Tony La Russa, who still considers one of the game’s top bullpens a strong asset.
“You can take an incident here or there where they haven't been perfect, but we had a couple chances with a runner on third and we didn't get a run,” La Russa said. “The team gets beat, the bullpen is outstanding, a real strength."
“We are going to try to stay humble and stay grounded as much as we can,” Kopech said. “But we have a massive amount of talent so there’s a massive amount of confidence in this clubhouse. I don’t think you can shake confidence out of the guys we have here.”
Kopech quickly has become one of those main bullpen guys, as he figures out the relief mindset.
“I’m on attack,” said Kopech, who made his first home appearance since Sept. 5, 2018, a start against Detroit followed by Tommy John surgery. “I’ve talked to a few guys about that. I talked to Lance (Lynn) a little bit after his last outing.
“The ability to go out and attack every pitch, it kind of puts you in control. You want to compete to the highest level obviously but things don’t always go your way so you have to be ready for the next one as soon as you come off the mound because that could be tomorrow.”