If strikeouts had monetary value, then Saturday would have been an example of the rich getting richer for Michael Kopech.
The second-ranked White Sox prospect fanned nine over seven innings, allowing five hits along the way, as Triple-A Charlotte blanked Rochester, 8-0, at Frontier Field. With 161 strikeouts, Kopech leads all Minor Leaguers.
Video: Kopech strikes out ninth batter for Knights
The right-hander worked around a pair of two-out baserunners in the first and recorded all three of his outs in the second via the punchout, despite a two-out knock from Juan Graterol. His whiff of Jeremy Hazelbaker to end the frame began a run of 11 Red Wings in a row retired by the 22-year-old.
Third-ranked Twins prospect Nick Gordon ended the streak with a one-out single in the sixth. Willians Astudillo followed with a base hit, but Kopech (6-7) got Kennys Vargas to pop up for the second out and got a groundout from Twins No. 13 prospect LaMonte Wade to keep a zero on the board.
Gameday box score
Gregorio Petit greeted the 2014 first-round pick with a double to begin the seventh, but Kopech buckled down and took matters into his own hands. For the first out, he froze Jon Kemmer for strike three. Graterol tapped a comebacker on the next pitch that which Kopech fielded, then ran at Petit between second and third, tagging him out unassisted. The Mount Pleasant, Texas, native fell behind Hazelbaker, 3-0, before coming back with three straight strikes to fan him for the third time.
Kopech walked off the field having thrown 69 of 96 pitches for strikes. White Sox catcher Dustin Garneau, who’s spent time with Charlotte this season and caught Kopech on various occasions, said his fastball is what sets him apart.
“It’s a next level fastball,” Garneau told MLB.com. “There are guys who have 100 mph and there are guys who have a different kind of 100 mph. That’s what he has.
“Now, the last four or five outings, he’s really learned how to throw and pitch with four pitches. He’s got a changeup now. He knows how to pitch with the curveball and slider and he’s got a real demeanor where he’s more mature on the mound. He’s looking really good.”
Video: Kopech records unassisted out for Knights
MLB.com’s No. 13 overall prospect has not allowed more than two runs in a start since July 5 and owns a 1.90 ERA in six outings since. He’s also recorded at least eight strikeouts in seven of his last nine starts.
That July 5 start, in which he gave up four earned runs and walked four over three innings against Durham, represented a turning point for Kopech, Garneau said.
“The way [Kopech] reacted to it, I told him that can’t work,” he said. “After that game, he really learned maturity and now he is pitching.”
Kopech received generous run support, spearheaded by top White Sox prospect Eloy Jimenez. The 21-year-old fueled a first-inning rally with a single off Red Wings starter Fernando Romero. Two innings later, baseball’s No. 3 overall prospect fell behind, 0-2, fouled off a pitch, then smoked Romero’s next offering the other way for a two-run blast. It was Jimenez’s 20th homer of the year and 10th since a promotion from Double-A Birmingham.
Video: Jimenez mashes two-run homer for Knights
During an interview with Chicago radio station WSCR last week, White Sox director of player development Chris Getz said Jimenez was “really close” to joining the big league club.
“He has done nothing but perform,” Getz said. “This guy’s been able to drive the ball to all fields. He’s been able to set up pitchers. … He’s got a pretty good arm. We just want to make sure he’s as ready as possible. We’re getting really close.”
White Sox No. 22 prospect Seby Zavala plated two runs and scored one on a two-hit night, while Matt Skole and Jose Rondon had three hits apiece for the Knights.
Chris Bumbaca is a contributor for MiLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @BOOMbaca.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.