Michael Kopech was itching to get on the mound, but had to wait until the fourth game to make his season debut. He made certain the delay was worth it.
The No. 2 White Sox prospect struck out eight over four scoreless innings to help lead Triple-A Charlotte past Norfolk, 4-1, on Monday night at Harbor Park. Kopech allowed two hits, walked a pair and hit a batter, throwing 51 of his 77 pitches for strikes.
Gameday box score
"I felt great out there," Kopech said. "No nerves or anything. [Pitching coach Steve McCatty] and I worked on some things in my previous bullpens, so I felt very comfortable and in sync. I rolled with what we've been working on early and it showed."
The right-hander plunked Drew Dosch in the bottom of the first frame, but then recorded all three outs via the strikeout. He worked around a free pass to Andrew Susac in the second, but found trouble in the third when he surrendered a leadoff triple to Engelb Vielma and walked Alex Presley. Kopech (1-0) responded by retiring the next three batters in succession, two by strikeout. He gave up a two-out double to Susac in the fourth, but completed his 2018 debut by whiffing Luis Sardinas.
Video: Charlotte's Kopech fans his eighth batter
"My first thought was to get a strikeout," Kopech said of his third-inning trouble. "But I also knew that if I could get a double play, that would be two quick outs and would help me get back on track. It worked out fine since I stranded them on a few strikeouts.
"Overall, I was pleased, but I didn't mix in enough off-speed pitches. The walks and the hit batsman weren't a big deal, but I went to six-plus pitches on five batters. That alone takes away an inning or two from me. I need to mix it up a little more to get guys off the fastball. At this level, even if the hitters are not hitting the ball hard, they have the ability to make contact and foul pitches off."
Obtained from the Red Sox as part of the deal that sent All-Star Chris Sale to Boston in 2016, Kopech enjoyed a strong season last year. MLB.com's No. 10 overall prospect posted a 2.88 ERA while striking out 172 batters in 134 1/3 innings across 25 starts with Double-A Birmingham and Charlotte. He surrendered 92 hits and held opposing batters to a .193 average.
"I feel a lot more comfortable this year," the Texas native said. "I'm accepted as part of the organization and there is no extra pressure I'm putting on myself. There might have been some times last year where I may have tried to show them what they had in me, but I'm beyond that now."
Invited to big league camp, Kopech said he learned a lot during Spring Training by facing Major League hitters as well from veterans his own clubhouse.
"Spring Training shows you how important it is to execute your other pitches," Kopech explained. "I have a good fastball and a pretty good breaking pitch, but I needed to work on my change, which I wasn't throwing too well. But I've been working on it and it's already improving.
"It's just great to be around guys like James Shields, guys who have been there and succeeded, it's a real, real benefit."
Jose Rondon homered, tripled and scored twice for Charlotte. The 24-year-old also walked and swiped his first base of the season.
Michael Saunders lofted his first home run for Norfolk.