Kopech eyes a return to the White Sox rotation, but when?

  • Michael Kopech struck out 10 and walked no one Sunday in the White Sox victory over Texas at Guaranteed Rate Field.

    Michael Kopech struck out 10 and walked no one Sunday in the White Sox victory over Texas at Guaranteed Rate Field. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 4/27/2021 6:56 AM

Since reporting to spring training in mid-February, Michael Kopech has said all the right things.

The White Sox's right-handed pitcher opted out last year and he missed the entire 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

 

That is a lengthy layoff, and Kopech was fine with hitting the comeback trail working out of the Sox bullpen.

"I'm going to pitch the best I can every time I take the mound, so nothing really changes in that regard," Kopech said after arriving at camp. "I just want to help the team win in some way. If that's in the bullpen or if that's starting I'm going to do it, either way."

Kopech's first 4 appearances of the season were in relief, and the 24-year-old pitcher showed zero rust while allowing 1 earned run and striking out 13 over 7⅔ innings. He also held opposing hitters to a .077 (3-for-26) average.

A spot start opened April 18 for Game 2 of a 7-inning doubleheader at Boston, and Kopech met that challenge as well, throwing 3 innings against the Red Sox and allowing 1 run on 1 hit to go with 3 strikeouts.

It was back to the bullpen after that, or so it appeared.

In need of another spot starter after Lucas Giolito was scratched with a cut on the top of his right middle finger, Kopech got the ball again Sunday against the Rangers.

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The outing was historic.

Allowing 1 run over 5 innings in an 8-4 win over the Rangers, Kopech became the second starter in White Sox history to strike out 10 or more in 4 innings or less.

In a start against the Cubs on July 25, 2017, Carlos Rodon had 11 strikeouts in 4 innings.

After Sunday's game Kopech was quite clear on his desire to stay in the starting rotation, but he's aware of the unusual situation.

"From a health standpoint, I understand that I'm going to have to be restricted this year just because I haven't had a full season coming off the surgery," Kopech said. "As far as what I would want, of course I would want to go out there and start every fifth day. But I just like pitching for a team that wants to win."

There is no set innings limit for Kopech this season, but the Sox are being understandably cautious given the long layoff and bright future. So far, Kopech is at 15⅔ innings, a pace of roughly 100 for the season.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

While he obviously has the skill to be a front-end starter the White Sox are likely to keep Kopech in the bullpen, where it's easier to manage his workload.

"This is definitely not the time to think about moving Michael into the rotation," manager Tony La Russa said. "He needs to be one of those guys we rely on in the second half of the game. It's all to the good, his good and our good. Right now, it's made sense to get him in condition and add more and more pitches."

As appealing as Kopech in the rotation is, the Sox have four solid starters -- Giolito, Rodon, Dallas Keuchel and Lance Lynn, who is set to come off the injured list (strained right trapezius) and pitch Friday against the Indians.

Dylan Cease is struggling again with command and high pitch counts, so there is a chance Kopech takes his spot at some point. Given La Russa's comments, that chance seems slim at best.

"Of course, if it was up to me I'd be trying to put myself out there every five days," said Kopech, who threw 87 pitches Sunday. "But we have an incredible rotation right now and with the way everything's going, I'm happy coming out of the bullpen and being competitive out of the bullpen. I'll take whatever role I can on this team right now."

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