The top of the first inning included two walks, an error and a slick move by Randy Arozarena to avoid a tag from Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson near second base.
It all could have gotten away from starter Michael Kopech. But the right-hander limited the Tampa Bay Rays to one run in the inning.
Kopech settled in and the Sox got big hits from José Abreu and Yasmani Grandal and strong bullpen work for a 3-2 victory in front of 27,113 Saturday at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Kopech allowed the one unearned run on one hit with five strikeouts and two walks in five innings as he took another step forward in his second start of the season.
“First couple innings, I think I went out there without really an idea of anything, just overthinking a bit,” Kopech said. “Then I was able to find my groove and stay in there and give the team a chance at least, and that’s all I was worried about. So I was satisfied with the day.
“It sounds simple, but (it’s) just locking in on target, focusing on that over anything else.”
Kopech retired the last 10 batters he faced, striking out two in fourth and two in the fifth, including his final batter of the afternoon, Brandon Lowe.
“He just got better and better,” manager Tony La Russa said.
Kopech threw 75 pitches, 45 for strikes. After spending most of last season as a reliever, he liked having the chance to settle in for multiple innings.
“If my first inning would have been as a reliever later on in the game, I don’t think I would’ve completed the inning,” he said. “But as a starter, you get a chance to find your feet and find your legs and get out there and compete. I did that today, and we were able to get a little deeper than it might have looked in the first.”
Kopech was in a dual with Rays pitcher Corey Kluber. The veteran, who won the American League Cy Young Award in 2014 and 2017 with Cleveland, entered Saturday with a 13-5 record and a 2.96 ERA in 25 career appearances (24 starts) against the Sox.
Kluber retired the first nine batters before Tim Anderson reached on an infield hit in the fourth. With one out, Abreu hit his first home run of the season.
“This is April, some of those balls to get them out you’ve got to crush them,” La Russa said. “He put a bunch of good swings today. Big hit. Tampa Bay, they’re a tough club to score on, to put hits together against. Lot of respect, credit to them.”
Kopech left with a lead but didn’t factor in the decision as the Rays tied the game at 2 with a run in the sixth against reliever Reynaldo López.
The Sox regained the lead in the bottom of the inning when Luis Robert reached on an error, stole second, moved to third on a flyout to center by Abreu and scored when Grandal beat the shift and singled between second and third.
“Nice piece of hitting,” La Russa said.
With Aaron Bummer and Kendall Graveman unavailable after pitching in Friday’s 3-2 win, the Sox turned to José Ruiz and Bennett Sousa for bullpen help. Both came through. Ruiz struck out the side in the seventh and Sousa struck out two in a perfect eighth.
“That was such a healthy thing for our club,” La Russa said. “It’s such a long season and if we’ve got a chance to win a bunch of games, that bullpen, everybody’s got to take some real clutch must-do situations. Even (López), he pitches the tough part of the lineup and only gives up a run. It was a one-run game and the bullpen does what it did. That was outstanding.”
Added closer Liam Hendriks: “We’re deep at the end but we’re deep in the middle as well. That’s something the league is going to learn. We’ve got some guys out there. It doesn’t matter who were going to throw in a one-run game. We’re going to be able to get it done, and that’s what we did today.”
Hendriks — pitching on the day the team handed out his bobblehead to fans — made a great defensive play in the ninth, fielding a grounder and throwing to third to cut down pinch runner Kevin Kiermaier for the first out.
“I know he’s an aggressive baserunner,” Hendriks said. “As soon as I got the ball back, that was my first look to make sure, to check. Luckily (third baseman Josh Harrison) was right on the base and we were able to make that play.”
The Rays loaded the bases with two outs before Hendriks struck out Taylor Walls for his fourth save.
The Sox have won six of their first eight despite missing starters Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito because of injuries. The entire staff has stepped up.
“I want to be able to continue building up and continue going deeper and eating innings so we can take some stress off our relievers, especially since they’ve been heavily relied on this first week,” Kopech said. “I’ve been in that position and I know what it feels like. I want to be able to do my job for the sake of the rest of the team.”
Harrison returned to the lineup and played third base after missing two games with lower back stiffness. Harrison has split time at second and third as starting third baseman Yoán Moncada continues to recover from a right oblique strain suffered in the final week of spring training.
“He’s getting better, but there’s still some discomfort when he makes certain moves,” La Russa said before Saturday’s game. “He’s going to have to be able to go full-bore with the swings, workouts and running before you can realistically say, hey, how about X days from now. As long as he’s got discomfort, (I’m) not even thinking about it.”