On Thursday Michael Kopech did something he'd never done before in his career, but it was what he didn't do that really stood out.
Not only did the No. 3 White Sox prospect set a career high with eight scoreless innings, but he also didn't walk a batter for the first time this year as Double-A Birmingham blanked Jackson, 4-0. Kopech, who allowed four hits and struck out eight, threw 70 of 97 pitches for strikes. Against the 28 hitters he faced, he hurled 16 first-pitch strikes.
"We've talked to him pretty much all year about the importance of first-pitch strikes," Barons manager Julio Vinas said. "With his type of stuff, if he gets ahead early, he's going to dominate and make it really tough for anyone to put together a good at-bat against him."
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The dominant start was much needed for Kopech, who came into the game with a 4.81 ERA and a 1.65 WHIP with 32 walks in his previous 10 starts.
According to his skipper, the 2014 first-round pick's struggles were a byproduct of a mechanical issue which had him falling toward the first-base side of the mound.
"It was a mechanical thing with him more than anything," Vinas said. "Right before the All-Star break [Birmingham pitching coach] Jose Bautista had a side session with him. They really worked on his direction and keeping his direction towards home plate, even after throwing the pitch. I think that really helped him out. He stayed behind most of his pitches and had better direction towards home plate. I think that's really going to a big help for him going forward and it showed tonight."
Video: Kopech's eighth strikeout for Birmingham
The exercise Bautista developed for Kopech's bullpen session was simple. He drew a straight line to home plate and the Mount Pleasant (Texas) High School product had to stay on the line through his whole delivery.
"[Kopech] noticed how much easier and how much less effort was involved when he stayed on the line," Vinas explained. "It's hard to repeat a quality pitch when you're falling off to the first-base side like he was doing. I really think that all clicked for him. I hope he does the exact same thing he does tonight from now on."
The 21-year-old needed just nine pitches in a 1-2-3 first inning. He pitched around Kevin Cron's leadoff single and Marty Herum's fielder's choice to the mound in the second. A two-out double by Victor Reyes in the third fell by the wayside when Kopech got Jamie Westbrook to ground out to short.
After working around a leadoff single by Cron in the fourth, Kopech retired five in a row until Evan Marzilli hit a two-out triple in the fifth.
"He used his slider and his changeup, which looked really good. He had a nice mix of all his pitches," Vinas said. "That's a big thing for him, to keep developing his slider and his changeup. It was really good to see. He went after all the leadoff hitters. He got six of eight leadoff hitters out, which is really, really good. It makes it so much easier when you get that first one out of the way."
From there, MLB.com's No. 11 overall prospect was lights-out.
Kopech, who topped out at 99 mph, retired the last 10 hitters he faced on 32 pitches and faced only one three-ball count in his final three innings.
"In the seventh and eighth inning, he had more velocity," the manager said. "That just comes with confidence. He was really worried about his direction early in the game, and as it went on, he started feeling it better and it started to become second nature for him. He didn't have to think about it too much and you could see the confidence in him."
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In 18 starts with Birmingham this season, Kopech has produced a 3.51 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP. He leads the Southern League with 114 strikeouts in 92 1/3 frames and is averaging 11 punchouts per nine innings pitched. More than the numbers, Vinas has been encouraged by how open his ace is to learning and making adjustments to become a more complete pitcher.
"He's such a great kid. He's a sponge and he always wants information," Vinas added. "We go over hitters before every game. He records all of that and is able to put a plan together. Everything that Jose gives him, he knows it's information that can help him and he trusts Jose and the organization. He's extremely pleasant to work with and I can't say enough good things about how he goes about his business."
Birmingham reliever Jace Fry struck out the side in a 1-2-3 ninth.