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How Abreu is leading Sox through Eloy, Robert injuries originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
No Eloy Jiménez. No Luis Robert. No problem?
That the Chicago White Sox are a first-place team and legitimate World Series contender after two months without their starting left fielder and one month without their starting center fielder — two guys who happen to be among their most important hitters — should be the screaming headline of the team's season to date.
The White Sox woke up Thursday with a two and a half game lead in the AL Central standings, the third best record in baseball and the American League's best run differential, a plus-79 mark eclipsed in the National League only by the reigning-champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
While much of the attention, in the city and across the country, has focused on Tony La Russa's managerial comeback, the truth is that the White Sox deserve far more — or at least much more than they're getting — for what they've done on the field.
Unsurprisingly, that all starts with what José Abreu is doing off it.
It figured to fall on guys like Abreu, along with the White Sox other established bats, to shoulder a heavy load with Jiménez- and Robert-shaped holes blasted in the everyday lineup. The White Sox have received contributions from all over, including from rookies Andrew Vaughn and Yermín Mercedes, and their starting pitching has been just plain dominant.
But the thing no manager, general manager or player can stop talking about is what the White Sox have going on inside the clubhouse, a culture that La Russa has praised from the second he took the job and continues to marvel at on a near daily basis. Of course, the reigning MVP played a big part in developing that culture, as he has continued to do with the team needing to play through these two significant blows.
And it's prevented what could have been catastrophic losses from altering the team's World Series aspirations.
"We have to go step by step, one game at a time, one day at a time, one week at a time, one month at a time. We can't get ahead of ourselves," Abreu said Wednesday through team interpreter Billy Russo, relaying the mindset he's preaching in the clubhouse. "The guys that we have right now are doing a great job. We have to recognize that. They are doing what they are supposed to do, and everybody is helping us. I think that's what matters, we're playing as a team, as a unit.
"We want Eloy and Luis to be with us as soon as possible, but they are not here right now. And in the meantime, we have to take care of the things we have to take care of."
Abreu has made his expected contributions at the plate, even after a slow start. He had a very hot month of May, slashing .333/.422/.631 with six homers and 27 RBIs. He's the major league RBI leader. And he's fresh off a big series of moments in Monday's win over the Cleveland Indians, which included him driving in the tiebreaking run with what La Russa described as a sacrifice fly he'll never forget.
Again, that's all MVP-type stuff right there.
But in the umpteenth example of why he means so much to these White Sox, it's what he didn't do that revealed the kind of expectations Abreu has for himself. The White Sox ninth-inning rally in Tuesday night's loss in Cleveland fell short, with Abreu making the final out and stranding the tying run at third base.
"I couldn't get it done, but those are the moments that I like because those are the moments that I'm ready for," he said. "I'm the MVP, and I know that those moments are going to get to me and I have to produce in those moments."
Of course, Abreu's value to the White Sox is just as great off the field as it is when he's in the batter's box or making big defensive plays at first base.
Abreu has been checking in on his injured prized pupils. Jiménez and Robert are two of the shining stars of the José Abreu Mentorship Program, and it's no surprise that the guy who has been described as a father figure keeps acting like one as they go through their respective recoveries.
"Their rehab process is going well," Abreu said. "The training staff has done a very good job with them. They are feeling better. But as I always tell them, 'Just go one day at a time. Don’t try to get ahead of yourself. This is your career. You have to take care of yourself in order to do what you are supposed to do once you are healthy.'
"Believe me, there isn't anybody in this world more anxious and excited to have those two guys with us. Hopefully that's something that can be done sooner rather than later. I'm super excited and just rooting for them to get better as soon as possible."
Just because Jiménez and Robert are away from the team, though, doesn't mean that Abreu's mentoring has stopped. He's found new targets, including the currently scuffling Mercedes, who's mired in a 6-for-48 slump over his last 14 games, a far cry from the blazing-hot start he got off to in April.
"Last night, when we were riding the bus back to the hotel, I was talking to him and just telling him this is not a fair sport," Abreu said of his conversation with Mercedes. "You don't make a season in two months. You have to work hard and grind throughout the whole season. And sometimes, you don't get the results you are hoping (for), but you have to keep working.
"If you want to have success, the way to measure success is throughout the whole season, not just in one or two months."
It's stuff like that that has made Abreu the most important man in the White Sox clubhouse. La Russa has referred to him as the team's leader, along with Tim Anderson, at every turn. And the incredible clubhouse culture that La Russa has been impressed with since Day 1 of his second stint as the South Side skipper is what it is thanks in no small part to Abreu.
For so long during his major league career, Abreu's White Sox teams have not been contenders. Now that this White Sox team is built to win it all, fans can start seeing more and more tangible effects of Abreu's leadership and clubhouse presence.
It's in the win-loss record. In the division standings. In the run differential.
There's plenty of season left, of course, and no matter how many Dire Straits-scored social-media videos featuring Jiménez get posted, the recovery times for both he and Robert are measured in months.
But the White Sox, through two of those months, have flourished. It should come as no surprise who's led the way.
"We're just trying to be a family and really have that sense in us, just be a family, play like a family," Abreu said. "There's a lot of love among us inside this team, and that's something that is good. And that can't change if we want to do good.
"We are in first place right now. Maybe in a week or a month, we are not. But we have to stick together and play like a family and be like a family, because that's what really matters here."
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