Abreu shakes off strange 2021 season, back to lead White Sox

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kendall Graveman’s first order of business upon arriving at Chicago White Sox camp was apologizing to Jose Abreu.

“I didn’t mean to hit him. I know Tony (La Russa) gave me a little fit there,” Graveman said Wednesday.

It was in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the American League Division Series last October. Graveman, with his Houston Astros leading the White Sox 7-1 on the way to winning the series, plunked Abreu on a full-count pitch.

Abreu went to first base without incident, but La Russa, the White Sox manager, came out of the dugout and argued for several minutes with plate umpire Vic Carapazza, convinced Graveman had done so on purpose, whether on his own or on orders from Houston manager Dusty Baker. No one was ejected.

“I apologized to Tony, I said I didn’t mean to. He said, ’I realize that now, but in the moment I didn’t,’” Graveman relayed of his conversation with La Russa.

“That was a pretty good icebreaker.”

Now they have joined forces, after Graveman signed a $24 million, three-year contract with Chicago just before the lockout last fall. Graveman enjoyed a great season in 2021, with a 1.77 ERA and 10 saves for the Astros and Seattle Mariners. He was a starter his first four seasons with Oakland before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

He considers himself a reliever now, and he joins an impressive bullpen on the South Side that includes closer Liam Hendriks, Craig Kimbrel, fellow free-agent signee Joe Kelly and lefties Aaron Bummer and Garret Crochet.

Abreu’s reaction to Graveman’s apology?

“He laughed,” Graveman said. “He said, ‘I know you didn’t mean to.’”

Abreu had to roll with the punches throughout last season, dealing with constant minor injuries, a full-on collision with Kansas City’s Ryan Dozier that caused him to miss just one game, and the 22 times he was hit by pitches. There was also an umpire tossing a bat away that accidentally hit Abreu in the knee, and a game-winning dash for the plate on a wild pitch resulting in an ankle injury that cost him three games.

While it wasn’t as good as his 2020 MVP season, when he slugged .617, Abreu still managed to play in 152 games, hit 30 homers and drive in 117, giving him five out of seven full-length seasons in which he reached 30 and 100. He was second in the league in RBIs, four behind Royals catcher Salvador Perez, after leading the AL in that category the previous two years.

But it wasn’t easy.

“It was a very difficult season. I struggled a lot,” Abreu said through a translator of his .261 batting average. “I was able to recuperate in the offseason.”

With a bolstered bullpen and hopes for a full season from young outfielders Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez, Abreu is confident in his team’s ability to defend the AL Central title and make a deeper postseason run.

“We were talking about that, to keep that as our goal,” he said. “I know that the numbers are going to be there. If we are healthy, we can do very good things.”

At 35, Abreu is coming to the end of a three-year contract. While he has only played in a White Sox uniform since arriving from Cuba for the 2014 season, he isn’t sure what happens next.

Chicago has fellow first basemen Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets ready to bust out, and they have forced their way into the lineup at other positions. And just maybe, Abreu wants to see what life is like elsewhere, even if he has become a popular leader in the clubhouse.

“We haven’t even started the season,” he said.

“I don’t know. I’m going to see what happens. Once the season ends, I will have to make a decision, whether it’s here or another place.”

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