White Sox

Jose Abreu makes history, matches Pujols' record start to career

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Jose Abreu makes history, matches Pujols' record start to career

Jose Abreu made his way back into the record books on Thursday night.

And he knew it.

Abreu breathed a sigh of relief when -- in a 6-4 loss to the Kansas City Royals -- he joined Albert Pujols as the only player in major league history to begin his career with two consecutive seasons of at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. Abreu, who shared a hug with White Sox first-base coach Daryl Boston after he reached first, finished 2-for-4 as he plated RBIs No. 100 and 101 of the season with a seventh-inning single off Royals reliever Luke Hochevar.

“I was thinking a lot about it every time,” Abreu said through an interpreter. “I tried to not think about it, but I couldn’t do it because it was something that was in my head. Because I like the stats, it’s something that I was always thinking. I tried not to think about it, but I couldn’t it.

“It is a big honor to see my name along with Albert. He’s one of the greatest players in the history of baseball and now I have the opportunity to see my name next to his.”

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One night earlier, Abreu homered to become only the third player in baseball history -- and first American Leaguer -- to hit at least 30 homers in consecutive seasons to start a career along with Pujols and Ryan Braun.

To reach Thursday’s mark, Abreu needed some help from his friends. With two outs and the White Sox trailing by four runs, Tyler Flowers singled to right off Hochevar. Adam Eaton’s ground-rule double put a pair of runners in scoring position for Abreu, who fell behind in the count 0-2. Abreu took a pair of cut-fastballs off the outside corner before he ripped a 94-mph fastball past the dive of Mike Moustakas into left to score both runners. Eaton scored twice Thursday to give him 97 runs for the season as he vies to become the first White Sox player to score 100 times since 2006.

Pujols became the first player to post consecutive season of at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs from 2001-02.

“Jose is special,” starting pitcher John Danks said. “That’s really the only word I can come up with.

“We need to get him into the playoffs. He’s, if at all possible, maybe flying under the radar a little bit just because in the couple years he’s been here, we haven’t been in contention. He’s a great teammate, a hell of a ballplayer and it’s fun to watch him.”

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The reigning AL rookie of the year’s encore season has been superb in his sophomore season given he hasn’t been afforded the kind of protection he received from Adam Dunn in 2014.

Abreu, who earned all 30 first-place votes in the 2014 AL ROY balloting, hasn’t hit for as much power with runners in scoring position, but still brought a .980 OPS into Thursday’s game. Before he drove in the pair, Abreu had a .338/.449/.531 slash line with six homers and 62 RBIs with runners in scoring position.

Abreu hit .317/.444/.651 with 12 homers and 74 RBIs with runners in scoring position in 2014.

Abreu also established a career high for hits in a season with 178. Last season, Abreu finished with 176. The first baseman missed an opportunity to drive in his 100th run and set a career high in hits in Wednesday’s loss when he stranded the go-ahead run at third base.

“He went through the first time and everybody had questions about the next year and talking about power numbers, but when you’re the only two guys that have 30 and 100 it just shows his consistency that he had last year and his talent,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “He was relieved. I know he was… this is important. I think guys count on numbers and things like that. For him, it’s special.”

White Sox Talk Podcast: Michael Kopech tells all about his past, present and future

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: Michael Kopech tells all about his past, present and future

The White Sox top pitching prospect sits down with Chuck Garfien for a revealing interview at spring training. Kopech says he almost quit the game after he got into a fight with a Red Sox minor league teammate in 2016. He goes in-depth about his desire to be great, why meditating makes him a better pitcher, his failed PED test in 2015, comparisons to Justin Verlander, possibly becoming the future ace of the White Sox and much more.

Why Michael Kopech almost quit baseball: Revelations from the future White Sox star

Why Michael Kopech almost quit baseball: Revelations from the future White Sox star

GLENDALE, Ariz. — A failed PED test. A 50-game suspension. A fight with a former teammate. A broken pitching hand.

It all blew up like that for Michael Kopech in one calendar year.

And it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him.

“There have been points where I wanted to quit baseball. There have been points where I wanted to stop trying,” Kopech said Thursday in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Chicago.

This was the breaking point that almost ended Kopech’s career before it truly began but would eventually change his life for the better once the storms passed.

“Everything felt like it was on me at once, and it was tough because I had just gotten through the suspension, worked my butt off all offseason, came back to spring training in the best shape I had ever been in, and then broke my hand the first day of spring,” Kopech explained. “More than anything, I was frustrated and knew I wasn’t making anything better for myself and I was ready to get out of there.”

How long was he in this mode of possibly quitting baseball?

“Probably a couple weeks.”

The PED suspension in 2015 was for the stimulant Oxilofrine, which has been found in supplements which Kopech says he didn’t knowingly take.

“We do have certifications that we’re supposed to follow. We’re supposed to make sure that everything we take or put in our bodies is certified, and I probably wasn’t as safe as I should have been on that. I do take responsibility on that, and I regret it. But it’s part of the past and I did learn from it, so I can’t be too upset about it now and dwell on the past.”

The fight wasn’t only with Kopech’s teammate. It was also with his roommate.  

“It was a good friend of mine I was trying to help out. Things went south and he took a couple swings at me and I took one swing back. It just happened to not be a very good punch,” Kopech said. “I’ve accepted that I messed up. He accepted it as well. I’m open about it because it’s in the past and I’ve learned from it. But I’m not too proud to say I made a mistake. Fortunately, he’s still with the Red Sox and doing well over there. I think it didn’t alter our careers negatively, but maybe we both matured quite a bit from it and somehow, someway altered it positively. He’s still one of my good buddies.”

To say that Kopech’s dream is to make the major leagues would be limiting. He has a strong desire not only to be great but to be one of the all-time greats.

You can’t always pinpoint where a person’s ambition comes from. Kopech thinks it was from his torturous year as a nomad, out of baseball with a broken hand and a broken soul.

“Everybody talks about that itch to get back to spring training. When you have that for 12 straight months, it just grows and grows and grows,” Kopech said. “There’s going to be adversity coming your way in baseball. Learning from the adversity off the field is one of the tougher things I’ve ever had to do. Having all that come at once forced me to learn from it. I probably was a little stubborn and hard-headed at first, but taking a year off baseball, all you have time to do is think, anyway. I put myself in much better positions, became a lot more mindful about the game, and I feel like it has a lot to do with who I am today.”

Partly what changed him, and frankly might have saved him, was learning how to meditate. It’s a practice he learned from Red Sox mental performance coach Justin Su’a soon after the fateful fight with his teammate.

“It put me in a mental state that I never experienced. It’s almost like a flow state when I pitch but a lot calmer, so I got hooked on meditating and it took me away from the negativity of all that,” Kopech said. “I realized that my mind is my most powerful tool. I got addicted to this feeling that came from me being a more mindful athlete rather than just a powerful athlete or an athlete that throws 100 miles per hour. It took me away from being this guy that’s one dimensional to the outside public and made me have a lot more self value than Michael Kopech the baseball player.”

Kopech meditates before every start. Where exactly?

“For the most part, I’ll go find a closet or empty room somewhere in the stadium where I can zone out,” he said. “But even if it’s close to the clubhouse and I hear a little chatter that’s fine because the type of meditating I do focuses a little on background noise and helps my mind get to the place where I need it to get.”

It’s become such a powerful tool, he believes it gives him a distinct advantage over the hitter when he's on the mound.

“It’s tapping into this part of your mind that most people can’t dive into, and what’s funny is pitching is like cheating to me. When I pitch, the first batter I see with the stadium full of people, I’m in that state. Most people have to work their whole lives to feel that type of dopamine rush. Whatever it is actually, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know the feeling and I get it instantly when I take the mound. For me, that’s why I love the game because it makes me feel alive.”

It's a purpose and passion that has been reborn. Living proof that Kopech's mind is maybe all that matters.