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Jose Dariel Abreu is good at hitting baseballs. That's why some referred to him as "The Cuban Barry Bonds" before his defection last August. That's why the White Sox gave him a six-year, $68 million contract in October.
His numbers in his home country were absurd. In the 2010-2011 season, he hit .453/.597/.986 with 33 home runs in 293 plate appearances. In his final season in Cuba, he hit .382/.535/.735. No one expects him to replicate those numbers in the major leagues, but concerns about his ability to hit major league pitching already seem quaint, if not downright silly.
On Friday night, Abreu had already gone 2-for-4 with a home run against the Rays when he strode to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to face Tampa Bay closer Grant Balfour, who was in full-on meltdown mode (video above).
The White Sox and Rays had battled to a 4-4 tie in the early innings of Friday night's game, but Evan Longoria, donning a regrettable new haircut in support of the recently-eliminated Tampa Bay Lightning, put the Rays up 6-4 with a two-run home run off Chicago closer Matt Lindstrom in the top of the ninth. Rays manager Joe Maddon then handed that lead to his closer, Grant Balfour. Balfour got the first out quickly, but fell apart after Alejandro De Aza followed with a double into the left-center field gap.
Balfour walked Tyler Flowers on five pitches to put the tying run on base. He then walked pinch-hitter Paul Konerko on six pitches to load the bases, putting the winning run on base, after which his habit of shouting angrily, often at himself, drew Konerko's ire and led to the two players having to be separated. Balfour then got Adam Eaton to hit what looked like it might be a game-ending double-play grounder to second, but the speedy Eaton beat out the return throw (confirmed by replay). That allowed one run to score and put the tying run on third base. Balfour then walked the White Sox's rookie third baseman, Marcus Semien, on five pitches.
That's what unfolded before Abreu came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with two out, the bases loaded and the White Sox trailing, 6-5. Everyone in U.S. Cellular field had to have been thinking it, and it only took two pitches for Abreu to deliver. Balfour's first pitch, after much deliberation with catcher Ryan Hanigan, was a fastball at the knees for a strike. His second, another fastball, Hanigan wanted outside off the plate, but it drifted back into the strike zone, belt-high, and Abreu deposited it in the Rays' bullpen for an opposite-field walkoff grand slam. With that, Abreu tied the rejuvenated Albert Pujols, who homered earlier in the evening against the Yankees, for the major league lead with nine home runs and increased his season line to .263/.336/.632. The first two parts of that slash line may not be all that impressive, but Abreu is heating up. Over his last seven games, he is 12-for-30 with five home runs, that's an even .400 batting average and absurd 1.000 slugging percentage in his last 31 plate appearances, a hot streak which has come against the Rangers, Tigers, and Rays. On the season as a whole, he is sixth in the American League in OPS and trails only Pujols in the junior circuit in slugging. Jose Abreu is good at hitting baseballs, and it's a lot of fun to finally get to watch him do just that.