Michael Kopech entered the White Sox clubhouse with his head down.
Manager Rick Renteria and general manager Rick Hahn followed a couple steps behind. Nobody spoke. Nobody smiled.
They were trying to process the team physician’s determination that Kopech had a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and would require Tommy John surgery, sidelining him for the rest of this season and all of 2019.
“I think to say it’s unexpected would be an understatement,” Kopech said. “It sucks. That’s it. It sucks.”
Everyone involved with the Sox would agree.
The news shook many within the organization, which had pegged the 22-year-old right-hander as one of the Sox’ brightest stars heading into next season. Kopech allowed only one earned run in his first 11 innings but struggled with reduced velocity in his most recent outing Wednesday against the Tigers.
On Thursday, which was an off day for the Sox, Kopech reached out to the team to say he had trouble getting loose and felt slight discomfort in his arm one night earlier. He did not think it was serious and spoke about making his next start.
An exam by Dr. Nik Verma several hours before Friday’s game proved otherwise, revealing a “significant tear” in the ligament, Hahn said.
Kopech never felt a pop in his arm and could not pinpoint a single pitch or inning when the injury might have occurred. He described the feeling in his arm as soreness, not pain, and figured he could pitch through it before the surprise news.
“It’s been a whirlwind of emotions for me in the past couple of weeks, obviously,” Kopech said. “From just about my absolute peak to the absolute rock bottom for me.”
The Sox have dealt with recent injuries to several top prospects. Third baseman Jake Burger, the 2017 first-round pick, twice ruptured his Achilles tendon. Pitchers Dane Dunning (elbow sprain) and Alec Hansen (forearm) both went down, while outfielders Luis Robert (sprained thumb) and Micker Adolfo (UCL tear) also saw their progress stall.
Hahn said the injuries reinforced the importance of developing a deep farm system. He said the team still projected Kopech as a starter and expected him to make a full recovery for spring training in 2020.
“Sometimes, the best-laid plans fall apart on you,” Hahn said. “Again, this is a disappointment for now, a disappointment for certainly 2019, a very big disappointment for Michael Kopech personally, but he still remains a very big part of what we think is a very bright future.”
Kopech said he likely would receive a second opinion next week “even though they seemed pretty certain” about the extent of the injury. His surgery would follow shortly thereafter if the torn ligament is confirmed.
In the meantime, Kopech is trying his best to focus on this season’s bright spots. He struggled with command this spring with Class AAA Charlotte but posted a remarkable 59-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the weeks leading to his promotion. He will be a few weeks shy of his 24th birthday when the 2020 season begins.
“After a rough beginning to the season for me, turning it around is really big,” Kopech said. “It’s exciting for me. I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. I cut down my walks. I went deeper in games. I pitched more efficiently. I got myself to the big leagues.
“It’s unfortunate and sucks, but I don’t think my work ethic has ever been in question. If it has, then I’m here to prove that it shouldn’t be, and I’ll come back stronger than before.”
“This is by no means the last we’ve seen of Michael Kopech,” he said.