Closer role not working out for White Sox' Michael Kopech

“I need to mix my pitches and not just rely on the fastball so much,” Kopech said.

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Chicago White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech

Michael Kopech of the White Sox reacts after balking against the Miami Marlins during the ninth inning at loanDepot park Sunday in Miami.

Rich Storry/Getty

The struggle has been real for Michael Kopech. His conversion to being the White Sox’ closer hasn’t gone well, and he knows it.

“There’s no easy way to say that,” he said Sunday. “It’s tough for me to say, but it’s the truth. I’ve got work to do to get better.”

Acquired with third baseman Yoan Moncada as a prized Red Sox pitching prospect in 2016 — in the trade of ace Chris Sale that set the White Sox’ rebuilding project in motion — Kopech arrived in the majors with much fanfare in 2018, making four starts that season. But he was out injured in 2019, then opted out of 2020, the COVID-19 season.

He posted a 3.50 ERA on the Sox’ division-winning team in 2021, appearing in 40 games as a reliever and making four starts. After going 5-9 in 25 starts with a 3.54 ERA the next season, he struggled at 5-12, 5.43 in 27 starts in 2023 and was converted to a relief role this season.

Now the primary closer for a 26-67 team after the Sox’ 8-6 loss to the Twins in 11 innings Monday night, Kopech saw his ERA expand to 5.45 a day earlier, when he allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 7-4 loss to the Marlins, failing to protect a one-run lead. Former teammate Jake Burger’s three-run homer ended the game. Kopech (2-8) has blown five saves.

He has leaned heavily on his four-seam fastball, which touches triple digits. On Sunday, he threw 20 pitches in the ninth — 18 four-seam fastballs and two cutters.

On Monday, Kopech made himself available for a second consecutive day and bounced back with a scoreless 10th, striking out the Twins’ Jose Miranda with a high slider and getting Max Kepler on a fly out, stranding free runner Carlos Correa at third.

“It’s coming down to what we talked about a lot lately in-house,” Kopech said. “I need to mix my pitches and not just rely on the fastball so much. It’s difficult to do that when I fall behind and my best pitch is my fastball. I have to get back in the count.”

Noted manager Pedro Grifol: “[You’ve] got to find ways to slow down, pound the strike zone, use your secondary pitches. We’ve all seen him — when he’s in the strike zone, he’s really tough to hit. He’s coming in there trying to blow guys away, and he’s starting to learn how to put those together and mix a little bit of a starter mentality with a closer mentality, put it all together and see what happens.”

It’s fine for Kopech to bring the heat, but he has to command it better. Hitters are accustomed to mid- to upper-90s velocity and higher, so it’s not enough to simply gas it up and let it fly. And Kopech does have a slider and changeup — pitches he used as a starter.

“I believe in him, that he’s going to be a really good back-end-of-a-bullpen, leverage type of guy for many years,” Grifol said. “The stuff is too good.”

Grifol said the effort to get Kopech on track has involved people beyond pitching coaches.

“There’s a lot of people involved in this,” he said. “We have a lot of people trying to help him. We have a lot of resources that are in this process.”

Kopech’s talent is enough to warrant hope the Sox can get something of value in return before the trade deadline, but these outings raise red flags, even for teams looking for sixth-, seventh- or eighth-inning help. The ninth inning Sunday began with a walk.

“A leadoff walk is not acceptable,” Kopech said. “Walking the leadoff guy was a tough position to be in, but it’s not a situation that’s foreign to me. I’ve done it before and been able to work out of it.

“After that, it just comes down to executing, and I didn’t do a great job of that. I fell behind to some crucial hitters. The ninth has been my role this year, and those situations, I have a job to do, and I haven’t been doing it well.”

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