Michael Kopech had an inauspicious start to the season. But he's done a complete 180 over the past two months.
Boston's No. 5 prospect matched a career high set in his last start with 11 strikeouts, allowing a run on three hits over six innings Thursday as Class A Advanced Salem beat Carolina, 3-1.
"He's getting a lot more consistent with having an overpowering fastball," Salem pitching coach Paul Abbott said. "His command, his location is getting a lot better, his confidence is growing and he's just evolving as a pitcher as he's logging innings. He's got a better balance, a better delivery, better direction and the results are showing it. It's really showing in the slider, which he's incorporating well and it's become a true weapon."
At one point, Kopech struck out six straight batters and he fanned the side twice, the 10th time this season he's done so. The 20-year-old right-hander matched his strikeout total from Aug. 13 against Wilmington.
"The impressive part for me is the incorporation of the slider," Abbott said. "It's become a pitch he can put away hitters with and not rely on the fastball. It's something he's going to need as he moves up, but it's become a pitch he's gained confidence in. The two mixed together, it makes for a pretty tough at-bat."
Kopech's toughest inning was the fifth. He allowed a leadoff double to Luis Valenzuela, and after striking out the next two batters, gave up an RBI single to Sean Godfrey. The left fielder was thrown out trying to stretch his hit into a double.
Despite missing the first half of the season with a broken right hand, Kopech has made tremendous strides in his approach to the game. MLB.com's No. 77 overall prospect is 3-1 with a 1.42 ERA in nine starts for Salem with 71 strikeouts, tied for 25th in the Carolina League despite pitching just 44 1/3 innings.
"He's making up for lost time the last couple of years," Abbott said. "His development and maturity, he's come a long way. It takes a little while to understand that this is more than going to a ballfield and throwing a ball 60 feet, 6 inches. It's a job. It's throwing sides and making them a priority. He's a great kid who is constantly hungry to get better. He's starting to see what it takes to become a polished, complete pitcher and not just a fireballer."
With fewer than three weeks to go in the regular season, Abbott said he thinks there are a few things the Texas native needs to keep doing.
"Keep trusting his delivery and get the changeup incorporated a little bit more, that's the next one," the former Major Leaguer said. "We have the slider coming along very nice. Just gain experience and feel for the secondary [stuff]."
Abbott feels if Kopech's changeup continues to improve, there's a reason to expect big things from the 2014 first-round pick.
"Without making predictions, the sky's the limit," he said. "You don't see a guy like him come along every day. It's a cliche, but it's the truth. The pitchability to go with the work ethic and the will to get better and evolve as a complete pitcher, that whole combination, you just don't see. When you do, you have the potential for someone pretty special."
Bobby Poyner allowed a hit while striking out two over two scoreless innings in relief. Simon Mercedes fanned two and walked one in a hitless ninth for his sixth save.
Bryan Hudson went 2-for-4 with an RBI and Deiner Lopez drove in a run for Salem.
Carolina starter Caleb Beech (2-8) yielded three runs on seven hits and five walks with three strikeouts over six frames.
Robert Emrich is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEmrich.