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Michael Kopech struck out Willie Calhoun on six pitches to begin Sunday’s game at Guaranteed Rate Field.
It was the start of an overpowering performance for the Chicago White Sox pitcher.
Kopech struck out 10 in five innings as the Sox beat the Rangers 8-4 to sweep the three-game series. He allowed one run on four hits on 87 pitches.
“It means a lot because that’s how I still consider myself, a starting pitcher,” Kopech said. “And so to not get that opportunity for a while and then take advantage of that opportunity and to be able to get a little bit deeper than the plan was, I think that’s good for me and for the team.”
Kopech has been used primarily out of the bullpen this season. He was a spot starter for Game 2 of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox on April 18 at Fenway Park; it was his first start since Sept. 5, 2018.
Lucas Giolito was originally scheduled to start Sunday, but he said he cut the top of the middle finger on his pitching hand while the team was in Cleveland on Monday night. Giolito is scheduled to pitch Tuesday against the Detroit Tigers.
Giolito’s cut opened the door for another start for Kopech, who struck out eight of the nine Rangers starters at least once.
“To step up and give us five innings, that’s a pressure performance over and above just being a starter in a game we are trying to win,” Sox manager Tony La Russa said.
The Sox’s long-term plan is for Kopech to start, and he showed why Sunday. The first seven outs he recorded came via strikeout.
He reached double digits in strikeouts for the first time in his career.
“I’m happy every time I get a strikeout, but I wouldn’t say I’m impressed with myself to where I’m thinking about that moving forward throughout the game,” Kopech said. “As soon as one hitter’s gone, I’m on to the next. I feel like if you want to be successful in this game, then you have to treat every guy as a new guy.”
Kopech received plenty of help from the offense early. José Abreu hit a two-run home run in the first inning, and the Sox added three runs in the second to make it 5-1. Nick Madrigal knocked in two with a triple during a three-run third as the Sox extended the lead to 8-1.
While the Sox hitters came out swinging, Kopech made the Rangers swing and miss.
He struck out at least two batters in four of his five innings, including three in the first and second.
“Everything he’s shown is electric,” Sox catcher Zack Collins said. “He’s got that fastball. He’s got the good slider today. He threw a couple of good changeups, got a couple of double plays or a couple of ground balls. But everything he’s throwing is amazing right now and obviously throwing a lot of strikes, and that’s what he needs to do.”
The original plan was for Kopech to pitch four innings Sunday. But he retired the side in order in the fourth, striking out two, setting the stage for his return in the fifth. The 87 pitches are a career high.
“It felt more familiar than I was assuming it would,” Kopech said of being stretched out. “I kind of felt I would get pretty tired before I got to five innings today. I was a lot more energetic than I would have expected to be in the fourth and fifth inning, just considering that I haven’t started in so long.
“But just being able to get out there and push through those last couple innings and still feel competitive means a lot to me.”
Kopech has a 1.72 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 15⅔ innings. He helped the Sox (12-9) extend their winning streak to a season-high four games.
“The more he goes out there, getting outs when he has to get them, whether it’s in relief or as a starter, it gets into the bank for his future,” La Russa said. “Michael Kopech is going to be a top-line starting pitcher. But right now, it made sense to get him in condition and add more and more pitches. More importantly, the fact that he has competed so well shows that he has guts when he goes out there, he keeps his cool and concentration.
“He’s going to have to help us right now when he’s available, but if it comes that there’s a start and we can get him the proper rest, that’s a terrific advantage for our team.”