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How José Abreu, Tony La Russa will lead Sox to October

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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One of them was around long before the rebuild began, present for every moment of the Chicago White Sox' complete teardown and ascent into the realm of contenders.

The other, despite his longstanding ties to the organization, hasn't even been here a year but holds the job description of winning a championship.

Together, José Abreu and Tony La Russa will lead this group of South Siders into October.

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The mindset that La Russa, with his three World Series rings on his fingers, has preached is no surprise if you've been listening to the skipper all season. He's long stuck to sports' greatest cliche, taking things one day at a time, but there's a reason that's such a popular refrain and it's undoubtedly worked for the White Sox this year.

What's he telling the team now that it's the final month of the regular season?

"To play every game as a playoff game," Abreu said Wednesday through team interpreter Billy Russo.

Indeed it's time for the White Sox to lean on what has been talked up as La Russa's most valuable attribute. He has winning experience in the ultimate. Just one man in Major League Baseball history has won more games. He's won more division titles than the White Sox franchise can count playoff appearances. He's been to six Fall Classics and won half of them.

 

He was hired to do something similar with these White Sox, brought in to take the years-long rebuilding effort across the finish line. And now, though he's extremely cautious not to run afoul of the baseball gods, October is in this team's sights. It's time for La Russa to work his magic.

"He's a Hall of Famer. Nobody is going to give you that. He earned that, and he knows how to guide a team to the postseason and to have success," Abreu said. "For us, it's just to follow him."

Abreu was sold on La Russa early on, his friend Albert Pujols providing a vote of confidence earned after more than a decade playing for La Russa with the St. Louis Cardinals. The duo teamed for a couple World Series wins, so Pujols knew what Abreu, whose desire to make the White Sox a champion has long been on display, would get out of a La Russa partnership.

It was Abreu that was the rebuild's biggest cheerleader. He was obviously at the center of the plans, and he silenced anyone who questioned his three-year contract a couple offseasons ago by winning the American League MVP last season. But before signing that deal, he wore his emotions on his sleeve, saying he was so excited to be a part of the team's bright future that he'd ink himself if he had to.

There was no way Abreu was going to miss the glory days on the South Side. And now that the fleet of young talent he touted for years is driving World Series expectations, he's doing as much of an "I told you so" as he can. Though for a guy with Abreu's deferential personality, the "I told you so" comes off as more of a compliment.

"You have to recognize the great effort that the team, the front office has made and has done to bring this team together. I'm glad to be part of this team," Abreu said. "I'm glad to be on this team right now, with the young players we have right now, to be a guy that can lead them and show them how to do things here. I'm just grateful to have that opportunity."

If La Russa will lead the White Sox toward October with his championship experience elsewhere, Abreu will lead them there with his experience inside that clubhouse. It only took watching Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert goofing around on the fringes of Abreu's pregame media session Wednesday to know what role he's played in shaping all this young talent the team has. He called them his "sons," appropriate as they've described him as a father figure on numerous occasions.

It was Jiménez who said he cried when Abreu was named the MVP last year.

"He never gives up," Jiménez said Tuesday. "This season has been up and down for him a lot with the average and all that. But he's just out there every single day, no matter what. That's the best I can take from him."

 

It's always difficult to try to figure out whether Abreu's biggest impact will come as a mentor and a role model or as a middle-of-the-order hitter. It's doubtful too many MVP voters put Abreu at the top of their lists last season because they read about what a good guy he is. The numbers spoke for themselves.

As Jiménez alluded to, Abreu indeed described his season as an up-and-down one Wednesday. But unsurprisingly, for someone as consistent as Abreu has been throughout his big league career, he's as dangerous as ever as the White Sox approach the most important games they've played in a decade and a half.

Abreu had a torrid month of August, slashing .330/.382/.661 with 10 homers and 25 RBIs. He's on top of baseball with 102 driven in, in line to win his third straight AL RBI crown and second consecutive major league RBI title. The barrage of pitches he's taken off his body this season — 17 bruises to go along with all the other physical pain he's endured — show how little margin for error opposing pitchers have, trying to get him out in one of his few weak areas not infrequently resulting in him putting his head down and taking his free base.

Even in a season where he's hitting just .263 — it'd be a career low if the campaign ended today — he's managed to be one of baseball's best when it comes to the game's objective: putting runs on the scoreboard.

"Come heck or high water, José finds his way into that lineup, and he's ready for the toughest situations," La Russa said last week. "You don't get RBIs just because you go to bat 600 times. It's a skill. And he's one of the elite run producers in the history of the game."

The "toughest situations" are coming. The White Sox' huge lead in the AL Central standings might afford them a less stressful September, but that doesn't mean they'll approach the month with indifference. Abreu admitted last season that the White Sox took their foot off the gas after clinching a playoff berth and lost 10 of their final 13 games, including two of their three playoff contests in Oakland.

The players who lived that have been talking about it as a motivating factor since the spring. But surely La Russa's experience guiding teams to the promised land and Abreu's leadership in the clubhouse will prove valuable in attempting to avoid a repeat.

September will be an important month for these White Sox, ahead of an even more important October, when their season will be on the line day in and day out. These two will be at the forefront of the effort because they both have the same desire:

To be the last team standing, to raise a trophy over their heads and to raise another championship banner on the South Side.

Just don't talk to them about that quite yet.

 

"We are going a game at a time, a pitch at a time," Abreu said. "Just go a game at a time, and be ready for that moment.

"Of course we are not satisfied with how things ended last season, and we want to do better this time. But we need to be one day, one game at a time."

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