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White Sox still waiting for Jose Abreu to heat up

Jose Abreu was batting .243 with six homers and 27 RBI going into the White Sox' doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians Monday. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The first-place White Sox are in the middle of an important four-game division series against the Cleveland Indians. From there they head to Kansas City for another one. The road is unrelenting after that with series against the New York Mets and Detroit Tigers next week.

Jose Abreu is free to jump on board and join the cause at any time. At some point soon, the Sox are going to need him to be at his best.

The centerpiece of their lineup during his first two major league seasons, Abreu has not gone off yet in 2016. That the Sox are sitting in first place near Memorial Day says much about the value of pitching, defense and some timely hitting.

The Sox are waiting patiently for Abreu, who earned a benching or mental health day Sunday – call it what you will – after he went 1-for-11 in three games. He returned to action in the Sox’ doubleheader split Monday at U.S. Cellular Field, went 1-for-9, his only hit a double in Game 1 and saw his slash line drop to an un-Abreu like .236/.308/.388. He has 27 RBI and had reached base in 24 of his last 28 games, so he hasn’t been terrible, but his OPS (.696) pales to what he produced in 2014 (.964) and 2015 (.850).

In short, he hasn’t been the Jose Abreu the Sox need him to be on this quest for the postseason.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘struggling,’ ’’ hitting coach Todd Steverson said Monday. “For his standards, yeah. He’s found a way to maintain a decent average but he knows he’s getting himself out more than he should be. It hasn’t been about the pitchers, it’s been about him and being able to stick to a plan. He’s well aware of the things he’s been doing. It’s easy to see it.’’

Opposing pitchers have taken a textbook approach to attacking him. Hard stuff in, breaking stuff away. And it’s working.

“The question for hitters is, if he comes in, is it a strike?’’ Steverson said. “Come in all you want but can you live there and can you live there with a strike is a different story.’’

In the third inning in Game 1, with two on and two out, Abreu got jammed by a Mike Clevinger fastball that was about six inches inside and hit a soft pop to second baseman Jason Kipnis. In the fifth it was more of the same, a pop to shortstop on another inside fastball with two runners on.

“It’s no secret, guys are throwing him a lot tougher on the inner third of the plate,’’ Steverson said. “For me, my eyeballs tell me not a lot of them are strikes. It gets back to discipline. What do I want to hit and what am I waiting to hit. If that’s it, then be ready.’’

Abreu knows he’s swinging at bad pitches, on both sides of the plate, and acknowledged “feeling the pressure.

“But I don’t have a specific reason to give you to why I am struggling right now,” he said through a translator. “I just have to work hard.”

That’s never been an issue. Abreu continues to not be out-worked by anybody. Taking some pressure off, manager Robin Ventura penciled Abreu in the fifth spot in both games Monday. Ventura had gambled Sunday by sitting him against the Royals, and he won when the Sox came away with a 3-2 win to avoid a series sweep.

“I think that’s the job,’’ Ventura said. “You’re trying to help guys get through their little struggles. When they’re going hot, you don’t have to worry about it. But when they struggle, it’s about being able to give a guy a day off, keeping their spirits up, giving them a pat on the back, kick in the ass, whatever. That’s part of doing this and you’re trying to do it every day and help them understand it’s a long way to go.

“It doesn’t mean the whole season is going to end up this way.’’

A fourth of the way into it, Abreu trudges on. He grounded out to first base for the third out of the first inning of Game 2, with two runners on base.

“Jose wants to win and he knows his at-bats matter for us,” Steverson said. “He doesn’t want to be an out. Nobody wants to go up there and be bad. He has set a standard for himself.’’