'Stopper' Michael Kopech, White Sox 'pen matching preseason hype

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Vinnie Duber
·5 min read
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Kopech, relief arms already showing Sox 'pen is mightier originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The White Sox bullpen, with designs on being the game's finest relief unit this season, saw its dream of going 90-0 with a late lead vanish on Day 1 of the season.

But while the South Siders started the 2021 campaign on a sour note thanks to a late-game letdown caused by defensive miscues, the bullpen is already well on its way to achieving the elite status it envisioned throughout the spring.

Friday night, the bullpen really showed how impactful it can be for this White Sox team.

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Dallas Keuchel lasted just four innings in his season debut, turning a three-run lead and a couple of base runners over to Matt Foster in the fifth. Foster did excellent work, striking out the first two guys he faced before the same thing that bit Aaron Bummer in the eighth inning Thursday, a glaring defensive error, this one by Adam Eaton in right field, brought those two runners home. Foster ended the inning with another strikeout.

But the game's highest leverage moments fell on the shoulders of Michael Kopech, who made his first appearance in a big league game since September 2018. In two perfect innings, the White Sox clinging to a one-run lead, he lived up to the hype and displayed the kind of dominance everyone envisioned from the moment he joined the organization.

"(It was) eerily familiar," Kopech said of his first trip to a major league mound in 31 months. "I was a lot calmer than I was expecting to be. I just really enjoyed being back out there and kind of being in the competitor’s mode again. Not that I didn’t get to experience that in spring training, but this is just different. It was nice being back out there and getting back in that element."

Kopech walked Mike Trout to start the eighth and bring an end to his outing. But in navigating the White Sox through two perfect innings in the sixth and seventh, he showed what a valuable weapon he can be out of the 'pen. The White Sox watched a 7-1 lead shrink to 7-6 pretty quickly Friday night, and Kopech halted the Angels' advance, wresting the momentum back to neutral after the Halos snatched it from the White Sox.

"I was very impressed with Michael," Keuchel said. "What’s not to like about that kid? He has pretty much every tool in the trade. I didn’t expect anything less, to be honest with you.

"Mike is going to be a stopper for a reason, and whenever we decide to move him back into the rotation, he’s going to be one of the best starters in the league, as well."

Despite Thursday's game getting away on a pair of unearned runs, Bummer did what was expected of him, for the most part, in his first outing of the season, even if he was quick to assume responsibility for the Opening Day defeat. Evan Marshall faced only three batters, one of which he intentionally walked, Friday but made quick work of the two he retired. Liam Hendriks got a gargantuan out in that same inning, stranding the tying run in scoring position. He came back for the ninth, after the White Sox offense spotted him five insurance runs, and gave up a homer, but as he said Saturday, "a save is a save is a save is a save." And now he's got his first one in a White Sox uniform.

It might not be the hyperbolic level of dominance some might have expected from this White Sox bullpen with all the springtime prognostication of excellence that set up images of bats being sawed in half with flaming fastballs. But for the most part, the bullpen has worked the way it's supposed to through the first two games of the season.

Kopech, in particular, dazzled. And it's not difficult to see what kind of difference-maker he could be as the White Sox chase a championship.

But considering the top two pitchers in the rotation, Lucas Giolito and Keuchel, got just 28 outs combined, the bullpen has done impressive work just 1/81 of the way through the campaign.

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"Yeah, it was really cool," Hendriks said Saturday of the bullpen's performance Friday. "Obviously, Bananas (Foster) has been in there for both games. ... And obviously what Kopey was able to do last night was fantastic. Not only did he soak up some innings, but he soaked up quality innings in a high-leverage situation, which is huge.

"And then turned it over to Marsh, and Marsh was able to accomplish the goal. We just kept passing the baton down the line, and we ended up with the win. Hopefully, we can go out there and do that the next couple times and leave this series happy."

Picturesque bullpen performance will be the reason the White Sox leave a lot of series happy this season.

It could be the reason they leave the World Series happy, too.

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