The White Sox put right-hander Michael Kopech on the bereavement list Thursday, a move that came after he left Wednesday’s loss to the Cardinals with a sore left hamstring.
The Sox were destined to be without their ultra-arm reliever and spot starter anyway. For how long is the question of the hour.
What is known is that Kopech, who pitched a scoreless seventh inning against St. Louis to lower his ERA to 1.78 with 45 strikeouts in 30„ innings, has been a force out of the bullpen, pitching multiple innings when needed. And he has been a valuable spot starter on three occasions. But the seventh inning of the Sox’ 4-0 loss Wednesday ended with the ominous sight of Kopech spinning around and falling to the ground after his last pitch, then hobbling to the dugout while biting on the top of his jersey.
It’s not as though many minor-league arms have been knocking at the door, waiting for an opportunity to step up at a time like this. The team purchased the contract of right-hander Ryan Burr, who has a 5.40 ERA in eight relief appearances at Triple-A Charlotte, before it defeated the Orioles 5-1 to open a four-game series against the Orioles on Thursday while Kopech was returning to his home in Texas.
“Talked to him before he left; he’s driving with his two big dogs, so he’s in good company,” manager Tony La Russa said.
Players must stay on the bereavement list for at least three days but no more than seve. The Sox were awaiting MRI results for the hamstring, but La Russa was somewhat optimistic that it’s not serious.
“I know it was something that gives us an optimistic belief that it’s going to be something we can take care of,” La Russa said.
“You’ve got to give it 24, 48 hours to see. We have our fingers crossed that it’s not something that’s going to last very long, but today is the day after, so I haven’t heard yet. We probably don’t expect to know anything more until [Friday].”
Losing Kopech for an extended time would add stress to a bullpen that was touted as perhaps the best in baseball but hasn’t measured up with a 3.92 ERA that ranked 12th in the majors and in the bottom third in WHIP and batting average. The pen’s 10.61 strikeouts per nine innings ranked third, however, and its 53 walks were the fewest in the majors.
“It’s still the most talented group I’ve ever been around,” said veteran right-hander Evan Marshall, who pitched a scoreless seventh inning Thursday. “You’re seeing lots of greatness from Michael Kopech. Codi Heuer [5.57 ERA] was in a little funk where something was maybe 1% off, but his stuff is there. Aaron Bummer [3.20] is the best lefty in the game, and you saw [closer] Liam Hendriks [2.37 ERA, 10 saves] be himself [Tuesday night].”
As a member of the pen himself, nothing less than a glass-half-full assessment would be expected from Marshall (5.79 ERA), a trusted back-end-of-the-pen contributor in 2019 and ’20 who hasn’t been the same performer in the first two months of this season. But after viewing video of the old Marshall, he made a recent mechanical adjustment and believes he has turned a corner.
The rotation has been better than advertised, ranking first in the American League in ERA (2.90), average (.200), slugging (.315) and OPS (.591) before Dylan Cease tossed six innings of one-run ball Thursday. Sox starters owned a 2.25 ERA over the previous 10 games.
“It’s the best I’ve seen from a group of starters,” Marshall said. “They’re going out there six, seven, eight innings.
“We want to keep it going. We really pride ourselves on being a stable of high-caliber, late-inning arms where you can pitch and get a day off because your brother behind you has it the next day.”