BOSTON — Michael Kopech’s progression toward bigger and better things for the White Sox took another significant step Sunday when the 24-year-old right-hander, responding to his first starting assignment of the season, breezed through the first nine Red Sox he faced at Fenway Park.
After the White Sox squeezed out a 3-2 victory in Game 1 of a doubleheader, manager Tony La Russa announced that Kopech would get the ball in Game 2. Because it was Kopech, he of the electric arm and big future, a buzz was created.
“He’s fired up, and we’re fired up to watch him,” La Russa said.
Kopech was up to the moment.
Pitching against the team that traded him as a prospect with Yoan Moncada for Chris Sale in 2016, Kopech dominated the Red Sox’ lineup from top to bottom, striking out four, not allowing a ball out of the infield and jump-starting the Sox to a 5-1 victory in Game 2 and a doubleheader sweep that evened their record at 8-8.
“My passion is starting, and Tony’s been able to see that in me since spring training,” Kopech said. “And not that I was verbally fighting for this start, but I really wanted it when I saw there was an opportunity for a spot start.
“And with it being against the old squad, that just made it that much more fun.”
Kopech’s outing, which wasn’t expected to go past three innings, was over after Kike Hernandez walked and Alex Verdugo singled through the infield to open the fourth. Matt Foster (1-0) relieved on a perfect day for a bullpen that had been less than perfect of late.
For now, there are no plans to rush Kopech into the starting rotation, even with Lance Lynn going on the injured list Sunday. Lynn is expected to miss one start, and in his first season back after missing 2019 because of Tommy John surgery and opting out of 2020, Kopech has worked as a multi-innings reliever.
“Down the road, he’ll be in the rotation,” La Russa said. “But [first] he’s going to be a force coming out of our bullpen.”
Down the road could be late this season. Or next year. It will be something to watch develop either way.
“He understands that he’s getting his feet wet the way he is because he’s been pitching in pressure situations,” La Russa said. “The days he gets to watch our veteran starters, it’s the best preparation for him. Especially as we build up the strength in his arm.”
A seven-inning game — the way of doubleheaders this season — on two days of rest after his fourth relief appearance Thursday against the Indians was a good place to fit Kopech into a start. He finished with 41 pitches, 25 for strikes, and left with a 1.69 ERA, 17 strikeouts and three hits and four walks allowed in 10‰ innings. Kopech had thrown 33, 34, 26 and 33 pitches in his four relief outings, his longest lasting 2„ innings.
Sweeps are always tough, and Kopech helped the Sox get one against a team that had won 10 of 11.
In a three-run fourth, Yermin Mercedes belted his team-high fourth homer for a 2-0 lead, Danny Mendick blooped an RBI single to center to make it 3-0 and leadoff hitter Nick Madrigal doubled in Mendick to make it 4-0. Madrigal, batting .304, drove in the fifth run with a sacrifice fly in the sixth.
Closer Liam Hendriks, who got the save in Game 1, pitched a perfect ninth in Game 2.
“Kopech is something special, taking two years off,” Hendriks said. “He pitched his [butt] off.”
Doing it at Fenway was the cherry on top.
“That I got to do that as a visitor and be competitive and help my team get a chance to win, I couldn’t have asked for a better day,” he said.