GLENDALE, Ariz. — Welcome back, Michael Kopech.
The Sox’ prized pitching prospect coming off Tommy John surgery isn’t all the way back — that will officially occur when he takes the mound in a major-league game at some point this season — but he knew he was back in the pitching trenches when teammate Matt Skole whizzed a comebacker past his ear during live batting practice Friday.
Kopech lost his balance and spun to the ground while eluding the ball. A little too close for comfort for him and Sox management and on-field personnel watching, but, hey, such are the perils of big-league ball.
“It whipped my ear there a little bit,” Kopech said. “He put a good swing on a good pitch, and I just was slow getting out of the way. But it almost got me in the face.
“I haven’t seen that kind of real-time feedback in a long time, and that’s about as real-time as it gets. That’s what you want to experience, to see if you can get somebody or if he can get you. And he got me.”
The better news is that Kopech was unscathed. Also good: Kopech is showing the stuff that should allow him to get hitters out. He likes how he feels 17 months removed from Tommy John surgery and is satisfied so far with the command of his fastball and slider.
“I’m pleased with it. Me being very critical of myself, I think I could definitely be better,” he said. “Overall, I missed a few spots with my fastball, but for the most part, if I was missing away, I was trying to go away. If I was missing in, I was trying to go in. I’m pretty much around where I want to be around, so I’m pretty comfortable with where I’m throwing the ball.”
Catcher Seby Zavala, who caught Kopech at Class AAA Charlotte in 2018, likes what he has seen from the 23-year-old in bullpen sessions and Kopech’s first live batting practice earlier this week.
“He’s looking really good,” Zavala said. “His arm is electric as it’s always been, that slider is looking a lot better. He’s found his right mental space, he’s got his body back. He’s ready to go.”
Kopech feels good physically, is throwing with confidence and said Friday, “I’m pretty close to being where I need to be.”
“At the same time, there’s pitches that need to be executed better,” he said. “Fortunately for me, that was only my second live BP, so I have time to make some adjustments.”
Kopech won’t make the Opening Day roster, no matter how good he looks and feels. He’s expected to stay in Arizona when the team breaks camp as the Sox ease him back and monitor his innings this season. He’ll likely pitch at Charlotte before joining the Sox to make what would be his fifth major-league start.
The Sox have a plan in place, and Kopech won’t be pressed for any reason. A late May or June call-up is likely a reasonable guess.
Here’s what we know now:
“He looks good, he looks free and easy,” general manager Rick Hahn said.
And it’s one step at a time. Live batting practice is one of those baby steps.
“It’s now just a matter of getting him in baseball shape and in a position to competitively get big-league hitters out,” Hahn said. “Each small milestone . . . brings him a great deal of happiness and gets him one step closer to contributing to the big-league level again.”
So far, so good.
“The ball is coming out of his hand really easily,” manager Rick Renteria said. “His demeanor is just much more mature. It’s another year. I know he’s been out the whole year because of the surgery, but there’s a lot to like about what you are looking at while he’s out there on the mound.”