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Michael Kopech set for first Cactus League start

Teammates have been asking Kopech for a while now. Now they have an answer.

Michael Kopech throws live batting practice at White Sox camp.
John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Teammates have been asking right-hander Michael Kopech for a while now.

Now they have an answer.

Kopech, entering the final stages of recovery from Tommy John surgery, will make his first start of the spring against the Rangers on Tuesday in Glendale.

“It’s exciting,” Kopech said Sunday. “I mean, it’s just been a long time coming for me.”

Kopech said he expects to make three starts this spring. He won’t break camp with the White Sox and will instead ease his way back, perhaps targeting a May or June return. He has impressed on the back fields in live batting practice and in bullpen sessions, featuring a lively fastball, crisp slider and healthy arm. Now it’s time to see it in a game.

“Everyone is going to stop and watch that one,” catcher Zack Collins said.

It will be Kopech’s first game in a Sox uniform since Sept. 5, 2018, against the Tigers at Guaranteed Rate Field. Kopech was diagnosed with a torn right ulnar collateral ligament the next day and underwent surgery Sept. 18 of that year.

While still having upper-90s velocity at his disposal, he believes he’s less of a thrower and more of a pitcher than when he first arrived in the majors for four starts in 2018. Collins, who caught Kopech at Class AAA Charlotte in 2018, thinks Kopech’s command is better, but he still has that live arm, repaired as it may be.

“He’s electric,” Collins said.

In the past, a moment like Tuesday might have pushed Kopech’s adrenaline over the edge, but he says he’s calmer and more controlled on the mound.

“With all the work that I’ve put in to kind of maintain self-control [since the injury], I feel like I shouldn’t have to really focus on that,” he said. “So it should just come naturally now. But it’s a competitive environment. I’m sure there’s going to be some nerves involved, too.”

It will be interesting to see if Kopech, the second key piece along with Yoan Moncada acquired from the Red Sox in the Chris Sale trade in 2016, can resist gassing it up.

“I’m going to throw the ball hard just because that’s who I am and I have the ability to throw the ball hard,” he said. “But more so I’m focused on pitching rather than throwing. I’ll probably still have the velocity that I want, but I really just want to command the plate.”

To be away from competitive pitching for 18 months has been a soul-searching experience for Kopech. Losing something that has meant everything to him for that long has changed him, he said.

“First I want to go out there and I want to have fun,” Kopech said. “I want to throw my pitches, I want to compete, but I want to go out there and I want to enjoy playing baseball again.”

This and that

Left-hander Gio Gonzalez (shoulder) is scheduled for his first game Wednesday at the Rockies. Lucas Giolito is slated to start, so Gonzalez will probably be the first pitcher used in relief.

  • Lefty reliever Jace Fry also is scheduled for his first game Wednesday.