GLENDALE, Ariz--- When Michael Kopech took the mound for his first game in 18 months, the velocity of his first four pitches that flashed up on the scoreboard said it all.
“I might have been a little geeked,” Kopech said after he threw a perfect 1-2-3 inning Tuesday against the Texas Rangers, his first appearance since having Tommy John surgery in September 2018. “The first two pitches I felt a little out of control, and then by the third pitch, I took a breath and I settled back in. I still had quite a bit of adrenaline going. I felt really good. I was able to command my fastball after the first two. Aside from that, just glad to get it under my belt.”
There were two groundouts to second baseman Leury Garcia, followed by a called strike three that froze Rangers first baseman Greg Bird. The White Sox pitcher then casually strolled back to the dugout to a standing ovation from White Sox fans.
“The first step obviously. It feels nice to be able compete again," Kopech said. "18 months out, I felt like I haven’t really had a chance to compete the way that I liked to and the way that I can, and having that ability today, even if it was for a short stint was relieving.”
Of the 11 pitches Kopech threw, six were 100 or 101 mph. Some stadiums are known to have hot guns that inflate actual speeds. I’m told the radar gun at Camelback Ranch was on point for Kopech.
But going forward, don’t expect to see many triple digit outings like this from the White Sox flamethrower. That’s not his intent anymore.
“I don’t think I’m going to be typically throwing as hard as I did today,” Kopech said. “I don’t want to take anything away from what I did today. I’m proud of it, excited, but moving forward I’m not going to try to be a power pitcher. I’m going to try to be a pitcher.”
Even before Kopech made this abbreviated, yet successful first start, his teammates already knew what was coming. Besides his electric fastball, Kopech has been working on a back-breaking slider and curveball in practice and, if he can successfully bring into games, look out.
“What I saw from Kopech the other day in the backfields was something I haven’t seen before,” Zack Collins said, describing a batting practice session he caught for Kopech.
Reliever Aaron Bummer was watching as well.
“This is pure power coming at you and you know that it’s uncomfortable,” Bummer said about Kopech. “You’re standing behind the cage and you’re thinking that ball is going to get on you. That ball is coming in hot at you. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”
Against the Rangers, Kopech threw seven fastballs (the “slowest” was 98), plus his slider and curveball, which he said, “I could throw where I wanted and with conviction.” He didn’t bring out the changeup, which he hopes to introduce in his next start, likely five days from now.
This was Kopech’s first game throwing to catcher Yasmani Grandal. Although it was brief, he enjoyed throwing to the Sox new All-Star backstop.
“He gave me the reigns today and said if I wanted to shake anything or throw anything it was up to me," he said of Grandal. " Just go out there and be comfortable. I didn’t want to shake, so that’s a good sign. Aside from that, he’s like butter back there, so it’s pretty easy to throw to a guy like that.”
Kopech is on the road back to the majors. The question remaining is when will he get there?
“(The White Sox) have a plan in mind,” Kopech said. “If I don’t fit into it right away then I hope to fit into it at some point, but right now I’m just going to do what I do and hopefully that gets me there at the right time.”
The best part of Tuesday’s game? Kopech feels right. He feels like the pitcher he used to be -- only better. And instead of watching, he was doing what was taken away from him a year and a half ago.
He was pitching.
“I feel like I’m a part of the team again, for the most part I never felt like I was not a part of it, but when you’re not competing a lot of times you feel more like a fan. Getting the high fives and the greeting at the step of the dugout when I came out of the game, it’s a good feeling.”