MLB.com Columnist

Jim Callis

Boston's Kopech overcomes command issues in AFL win

Boston's Kopech overcomes command issues in AFL win

MESA, Ariz. -- Michael Kopech may have the best stuff among starting pitchers in the Arizona Fall League, but his arsenal wasn't as strong as usual and his command deserted him on Friday afternoon. Nevertheless, the Red Sox right-hander battled through 3 1/3 scoreless innings to help the Surprise Saguaros beat the Mesa Solar Sox, 5-3.

After issuing just one walk in 14 innings over his first four AFL starts, the Red Sox's No. 5 prospect gave up six to the 16 Mesa batters he faced. His fastball, which has sat at 98 mph in Arizona and hit 100 five times during last Saturday's Fall Stars Game, ranged from 95-98. His slider also was less sharp than usual and he had trouble locating both offerings in the strike zone, which he found with just 33 of his 72 pitches.

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Kopech's changeup was his most reliable pitch, and he still threw hard enough and effectively wild enough to give up just two hits, allowing him to escape without permitting a run and lower his ERA to 1.56. Catcher Mitch Garver (Twins' No. 24 prospect) also helped Kopech's cause by throwing out three would-be basestealers.

"The name of the game is competing," Kopech said. "I had way too many walks. Nothing was working today. I was lucky Garver was behind the plate because he's phenomenal back there. I just had to compete and give my team a chance to win the game. It worked out because I was able to put zeros up on the board."

The 33rd overall pick in the 2014 Draft, Kopech has dominated professional hitters, recording a career 2.61 ERA with a strikeout rate of 11.5 per-nine-innings and a .198 opponent average. He didn't overmatch the Solar Sox on Friday, and while he didn't perform as well as he hoped, he said the challenge was a good experience for him.

"I didn't feel comfortable warming up and I never got into it," Kopech said. "I was missing to my arm side a lot, so it could have been mechanical, but I wasn't able to make an adjustment. It says a lot that my changeup was my only decent pitch. I had better control of my changeup than my slider, and it was big for me to be able to throw my changeup for strikes today."

The win allowed Surprise (14-12-1) to move a half-game behind the Peoria Javelinas in the West Division. Mesa's (14-13) defeat cut its lead in the East to a half-game over the Salt River Rafters. The two division winners will meet in a one-game playoff for the AFL championship on Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. ET, with the game broadcast live by MLB Network and MLB.com.

With the way the Saguaros' schedule is lining up, Kopech could get the start if Surprise reaches the championship game. He admitted that thought has crossed his mind.

"My last playoff game was against Myrtle Beach this year, and I didn't pitch very well," he said. "In my mind, this could be a chance to redeem myself. If not, I hope we get a chance to go out there and win the championship."

Andy Ibanez (Rangers No. 2 prospect) drove in the first three runs of the game for the Saguaros with a two-run single in the second inning and an RBI double in the fifth. Danny Mars (Red Sox) extended Surprise's lead to 5-0 with a two-run double in the sixth. Anthony Alford (Blue Jays' No. 3) got the Solar Sox on the board with a three-run homer in the eighth off left-hander Jalen Beeks (Red Sox's No. 29), but Mesa couldn't close the gap any further.

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.