HOUSTON — It's hard to imagine the Chicago White Sox playing a postseason game without their MVP.
But that's a real possibility after the team announced Wednesday, on the eve of the American League Division Series, that first baseman José Abreu has been battling flu-like symptoms in recent days, impactful enough that he did not travel to Texas with his teammates. The White Sox added that testing confirmed the illness was not COVID-related.
By the time manager Tony La Russa and White Sox players met the media ahead of Wednesday's workout at Minute Maid Park, the feelings, however, had evolved to those of relief, with Abreu said to be feeling better and scheduled to make his way to Houston.
"He had had a tough night with fever (Monday)," La Russa said. "Now we're all brimming with happiness and excitement because the fever broke. He passed the tests, which are mandatory, and he'll be flying back here tonight.
"We'll see what his strength level is for tomorrow, but our worst fears were never realized. He'll be back in uniform."
Whether, though, Abreu will play in Game 1 against the Houston Astros remains unknown, that decision coming Thursday.
Knowing Abreu, it would take something incredibly significant to keep him out of the White Sox' lineup, particularly in a playoff game. He spent the regular season getting beat up in just about every way imaginable, colliding with a runner while trying to catch a pop up on the first-base line, twisting his ankle while making a game-winning slide into home plate, taking an umpire-thrown bat off his leg and being hit with 22 pitches, including once in the helmet.
He played through it all, no surprise considering the dedication Abreu has shown throughout his time on the South Side, no surprise considering how much he loathes days off.
"We've had several conversations in the clubhouse about how stubborn he's going to be about admitting how he feels for the game tomorrow," La Russa said. "(We'll have him) put his hand on the baseball bible and see.
"I think for certain, if he's not in there tomorrow, he'll be in there Friday (for Game 2)."
The White Sox, of course, thought themselves mostly out of the injury-related woods, having soldiered through the months-long absences of Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert and Yasmani Grandal. Even a late-season wave of maladies that sent Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodón, Tim Anderson and Andrew Vaughn to the IL seemed to be over and done with.
But on the eve of the postseason, their most important hitter is a question mark for Game 1.
It's not that the White Sox couldn't weather a day without Abreu the way they weathered the many days without their other middle-of-the-order bats, when reserves and fill-ins helped fuel a first-place first half. It's that Abreu is so much more than just the RBI God in the No. 3 spot.
"(Without Abreu, the team is missing) another part of the leadership, as well, and also a huge bat in our lineup," Anderson said. "He brings it every day. He competes every day. He wants to be out there every day. He's just one of those guys that I watched since I got to the big leagues just to see how he competes and see how he works behind the scenes where people aren't looking, and it shows in his game. He's just a huge example for younger guys coming up and (plays) a huge role on this ball club."
That's what would make an Abreu-less White Sox lineup so different, the same kind of drain, perhaps, the team experienced when Anderson, bringer of energy, was sidelined with sore legs in August and September.
Should the White Sox need a different guy at first base Thursday, they could turn to one of a few different options, with Gavin Sheets or Andrew Vaughn potentially taking over at first base. Sheets was likely to get the starting nod as the DH anyway, with right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. on the mound for the Astros. While Vaughn is capable of playing first, as well, his season-long struggles against right-handed pitching could force a bit of a lineup shake-up, with perhaps Sheets, Adam Engel, Leury García and César Hernández all finding playing time in Game 1. That remains to be seen.
Obviously, though, the White Sox, no matter how relieved they were that Abreu was improving and that his absence would potentially not last long, could find themselves playing their most important game of the season Thursday without their best player.