Flamethrowing Michael Kopech energizes Sox fans in major-league debut
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Say what you will about the boredom of the White Sox’ rebuilding/tanking process, but there was a hair-raising charge in the air Tuesday at Guaranteed Rate Field.
And it wasn’t lightning from nearby storms. Or the rain that paused the game after 1½ innings.
No, it was the wildly anticipated arrival of young flamethrower Michael Kopech from the minors.
There is nothing quite as exciting in sports as the dreamed-about entrance of a fresh phenom who hopefully will lead long-suffering fans to the promised land.
Even as Kopech, 22, leaned against the outfield wall long before the game, swinging one leg and then the other in semicircular stretches, Sox fans cheered and gaped.
‘‘It was a dream come true,’’ Kopech would say afterward, genuinely moved. ‘‘The fans were a lot more engaged than I expected.’’
He summed up the whole experience as a ‘‘whirlwind’’ and ‘‘overwhelming.’’
When purple-haired Jim Peterik led his vintage band, The Ides of March, in a stirring, harmony-soaked rendition of the national anthem, fans were half-crazed for what was soon to come.
And when Kopech at last strode to the mound, his blond hair poking out from under his cap like hay from under a wagon tarp, a standing ovation erupted spontaneously. Who cared that there were only 23,000 folks in the 40,000-seat stadium? Here came history, perhaps.
After a 5-2 loss to the Twins, the Sox are 31 games below .500 and have a worse record than all but two major-league teams.
Hope is a candle that flickers down a dark hall for the Sox, and Kopech is the anointed savior to move the candle closer to sunshine ahead.
The kid has been talked about for years. His fastball can hit triple digits, his curveball can buckle your knees and his tenacity is solid.
His dad, a lawyer and coach also named Michael Kopech, tweeted this a couple of hours before his son’s first big-league start:
‘‘For all you young dads out there, ignite the love for the game today and you might be witnessing a dream come true in about 20 years. #KopechDay@whitesox’’
Well, yeah, maybe.
If you’ve got a son in Texas throwing rocks through brick walls, then go for it. In all honesty, though, your little boy is to Kopech as a squirt gun is to a bazooka.
‘‘He’s a very talented and different kid,’’ acting Sox manager Joe McEwing said before the game.
That is, you don’t teach a kid how to throw a ball so fast that it almost ignites. You can teach him technique and attitude, but natural talent brings speed.
‘‘You realize it’s something special,’’ McEwing said of that talent.
You see, one of Kopech’s fastballs was clocked at 105 mph in a game in Class A a little more than a year ago. Then with an underweight ball and a crow hop, he threw 110 mph in a video that went viral awhile back. That’s sick, as they say in the bigs.
It doesn’t matter if you throw a perfectly smooth, aerodynamic pebble from the beach 110 mph, almost nobody in the world can do that.
Kopech threw his first pitch, a strike, to Twins leadoff man Joe Mauer at 96 mph. The crowd roared.
Unfortunately, Mauer singled on the next pitch, a 98 mph fastball. Then second batter Eddie Rosario also singled. After six pitches, the savior had two men on with nobody out.
But Kopech retired the next three hitters, and nobody scored. He was a star again.
Before the game, veteran Sox pitcher Hector Santiago had felt the vibes.
‘‘He’s going to have a lot of adrenaline,’’ Santiago said of Kopech. ‘‘I’m hoping for 140 mph. Hoping he breaks the radar gun.’’
Of Kopech’s 22 pitches in the first inning, 18 were 95 mph or faster. He topped out at 98.
The thing is, major-leaguers will hit straight heat. The ball had better move, break or do something, or it will get sizzled.
Kopech took something off his fastball to gain more control. It basically worked. He pitched two innings, threw 52 pitches, allowed three hits, struck out four and yielded no runs. Then the rain came, and the kid was done for the night.
Wildness is the curse of guys with extreme heat, and Kopech, who hit a batter when he had two strikes on him, must improve his control.
But he was really wild not long ago in the minors, and now — happy day! — he’s a big-leaguer with a 0.00 ERA.
He has said he wants to be ‘‘a dominant pitcher that’s throwing 97 or 107 or 67, whatever. It doesn’t matter.’’
True, it doesn’t matter. Not when you always have that lightning bolt in your holster.