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Michael Kopech ‘feeling strong’ approaching uncharted workload territory

Michael Kopech pitches against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning in his MLB debut game at Guaranteed Rate Field on August 21, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

DETROIT — Michael Kopech didn’t add much in his major league debut to an innings log the White Sox will watch closely. He pitched only two innings in a rain-shortened start against the Twins Tuesday at Guaranteed Rate Field.

But Kopech, the Sox’ prized pitching prospect who is schedule to make his second start and first on the road when the Sox play the Tigers at Comerica Park Sunday, says he feels strong enough to pitch as many innings as the Sox see fit in the final six weeks of the season.

“I feel really good,” Kopech said Thursday before going out to throw a bullpen with pitching coach Don Cooper. “I’ve felt more comfortable than I have in a really long time. I kind of stopped worrying about velocity and am focusing on just pitching, and I’m in a really good stage. I’ve slowed myself down and that has helped me maintain my strength. I feel like I can finish out strong this year.”

Kopech, 22, pitched a career high 134 innings between Class AA Birmingham and AAA Charlotte in 2017, his first year in the Sox organization. He’s at 128 between Charlotte and his two (with 51 pitches) scoreless frames with four strikeouts against the Twins, and seven more starts averaging six innings would probably put him at around 170.

“We want to continue to build off that career high,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “We’ll remain flexible as we head into the final weeks of the season here.”

What Kopech, a fitness freak, communicates to the Sox about how he feels as he goes through his starts every fifth day will be key, Hahn said.

“He may after a few starts be feeling the fatigue of a long season as he’s in an uncharted area, or as he did last year, he may just continue to build and get stronger down the stretch run, and let him go accordingly,” Hahn said.

He will be watched closely.

“I’m sure,” Kopech said. “Which is fine. I know they want to be careful with me and I understand that. But right now, physically I feel great and hopefully that continues throughout the rest of the season.”

Two days after pitching in the most electric environment Guaranteed Rate Field has known this season — fans gathered around the bullpen a half hour early to watch him warm up, and the crowd stood and cheered whenever he got to a two-strike count — Kopech is easing into a major league routine.

“It’s starting to settle in,” he said. “I mean, it was such a surreal experience, getting to live out that dream, it was awesome. But I’m kind of glad I’m past that point so I can actually focus on pitching and going about my starts the right way.”

Kopech will be opposed by Tigers right-hander Jordan Zimmermann on Sunday. His next home start would line up for next Friday against the Red Sox.

“I’m pumped up,” he said. “First road game for me against a team I grew up watching that could really compete. I’m exciting about going out there and pitching for hopefully longer than two innings.”