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Jose Abreu could be first White Sox non-pitching All-Star starter in 22 years

CLEVELAND — If it happens, and it’s trending in that direction, a White Sox position player starting in the 2018 All-Star Game is going to be a pretty big deal.

How unusual will this be? Hall of Famer Frank Thomas was the last Sox player to get voted to start by the fans in 1996.

That was 22 years ago, and since then the Sox have been represented by Albert Belle, Magglio Ordonez, Paul Konerko, Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye — to name only a handful — but none of them, despite playing on better teams that received more notoriety and national TV time and performed in front of bigger home crowds, was a top vote-getter at his respective position.

Sox right-hander Esteban Loaiza started the 2003 game at U.S. Cellular Field, and left-hander Mark Buehrle started for the American League in the Sox’ World Series championship year (pitchers are not included in the fan vote) in 2005 and was joined by Jon Garland, Konerko and Scott Podsednik. In 2006, Konerko, Thome, Buehrle, Dye, Jose Contreras, Bobby Jenks and A.J. Pierzynski all made it, but none of them was introduced in the starting lineup.

Jose Abreu of the White Sox slides safely to score in a game against the Indians last week in Chicago. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Abreu — who, with 636,666 votes in the second tally announced Tuesday, is headed for that honor, leading second-place vote-getter Mitch Moreland (472,245) of the Red Sox, Yuli Gurriel (368,863) of the Astros, aging Albert Pujols (336,724) of the Angels and injured Miguel Cabrera (333,130) of the Tigers — has the better overall numbers, but he was the first to acknowledge the odds are tilted in his favor this year.

“The fans know me better now,’’ he said. “I’m also realistic. Miguel is not playing, and Eric Hosmer is now playing in the National League. I’m happy, but maybe that’s why.’’

Abreu, 31, smiles as he says it, his humility sneaking out in plain view to reveal one of the character traits that makes him a superstar in the Sox’ clubhouse. He gets to the park early, leads by example on and off the field, expects max effort from himself and everyone else and combats his manager when he suggests taking a day off “because the Sox pay me to play every day.”

“I can get emotional talking about Abreu,’’ said manager Rick Renteria, who says he could not respect a player more than he does Abreu.

“I’ll take him. I’ll take him just as he is, every day of the week, twice on Sunday, as they say.’’

Without injured Avisail Garcia to protect him in a lineup stacked in the bottom half with batting averages in the low .200s, Abreu has felt the burden of carrying more than an extra load for a team with a 24-48 record.

“All I know is that he probably tries to carry us more than he should, puts a lot more pressure on himself,’’ Renteria said. “He sees where we’re at and feels like he should pick up the slack.’’

After a torrid May, Abreu has cooled off, going 10-for-51 with four doubles and a home run in his last 13 games.

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That’s not sitting well. Abreu thanked the fans and the organization for the All-Star support and in the same breath said, “Things aren’t right now where I want them to be, and I’m working hard to get that comfort level at the plate and to start producing as I know I can.’’

He made the All-Star Game as a reserve as a rookie in 2014, and he’d like to go again. His parents and immediate family want that for him, too.

“They’re paying a lot of attention to all that,’’ he said. “They’re getting crazy with every bit of news, every little thing they read about that. But I already told them, ‘Don’t talk to me about that.’ ’’

That’s because Abreu said he needs to focus on getting hot again.

As consistently good as he has been in his 4½ seasons, it’s almost a sure bet he will before long.

Hot, cold or in between, Abreu is still the best thing — hands down — the Sox have going in 2018.