How Astros’ Jose Abreu rebounded from a career-worst start

ARLINGTON, Texas — In the worst of times for Jose Abreu, among the many days and weeks of professional failure for someone who had had so much success, he ran into Reggie Jackson, the Hall of Famer who serves as an adviser in the Houston Astros organization, at Minute Maid Park. The two men walked across the outfield early one May afternoon, and Abreu, speaking in Spanish, quietly “talked and talked and talked,” Jackson recalled late Thursday night. And Jackson listened.

Maybe Abreu sought out Jackson because he’s a former MVP, someone who could relate to Abreu’s challenges as a slugger with high expectations for himself. Maybe it was because Jackson is part of the Astros’ leadership. Or maybe it was because Jackson understands what it means to be a star moving from one team to another and feeling like you’re letting new teammates down. What Abreu said to Jackson that day — the feelings he expressed — now must feel like some nightmare, one that he has moved beyond to assume his intended role as a clubhouse and production leader.

Abreu clubbed a pivotal three-run homer in the Astros’ 10-3 wipeout of Texas in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series Thursday night, and after he waded through 20 minutes of media questions about his restored preeminence, describing a strange tag that he made to blunt a Texas Rangers rally and laughing about his first stolen base in 925 days, Abreu walked over to teammate Martin Maldonado, grinning. He lifted a fist, as if he was going to club his friend, before gently tapping Maldonado on the back. Each chuckled, sharing silent emotions.

A moment like Abreu had in Game 4, Maldonado said later, “couldn’t happen to a better person, after everything he has been through; it has been tough.”

After a first half that ranks among the lowest in his career — his .537 April OPS was the worst of any month he’s ever had –, Abreu is mashing again, wrecking the line scores of pitchers. He’s clubbed four homers in eight games in this postseason, driving in 11 runs, the sort of production the Astros envisioned when they signed Abreu to a three-year, $58.5 million deal in the offseason. Houston added an experienced, dangerous slugger capable of punishing as Abreu follows Yordan Alvarez in the lineup.

The Astros and Rangers were tied 3-all in Game 4 when Houston hitting coach Alex Cintron pulled Abreu, getting ready to bat in the fourth inning, aside in the dugout. Cintron showed him videotape of Abreu’s plate appearance in the second inning, with a side-by-side comparison from an at-bat in September. Cintron told Abreu that he needed to be sure to keep his weight on his right leg a little longer, rather than to spin out. By the time Abreu strode into the batter’s box, the Astros led 4-3 after Alvarez drove home a run with a deep sacrifice fly. Cody Bradford, the left-hander brought in to face Alvarez, now had to deal with Abreu — with two runners on base. Bradford tried to pump a 91 mph fastball past him.

Without success. Out in the visitors bullpen, the Astros’ Hunter Brown initially thought he might be able to catch Abreu’s drive, only to watch it soar into the seats way over his head, 438 feet from home plate. Abreu trotted around the bases, and teammates spilled onto the apron of the Houston dugout, celebrating, pointing at him. Javier Bracamonte, an Astros’ coach in the bullpen, ran around happily among the relievers. Afterward, Abreu would look at Cintron’s tablet again, to see the at-bat once more.

“It was a great swing,” Abreu would later say in Spanish. “I think the team, in that moment, needed something to open up the scoring a little bit more. Just grateful for what life has given me. … It was a really pretty swing. When I watched it back on the iPad, it reminded me of who I am.”

Teammate Mauricio Dubon said, “He’s an ox. He’s a strong man. There’s nothing to be surprised about.”

One inning later, Abreu came up big again. The Rangers started to counterattack, with two runners on base and nobody out in the fifth inning. Corey Seager smashed a line drive — right at Abreu, who speared the ball and tried to tag out Marcus Semien as the runner slid back into first base. Semien was called safe, but the Astros asked for a replay review, which would show what Abreu said he felt — that he had brushed the batting glove hanging out of Semien’s back pocket. The call was overturned.

In the dugout, Astros manager Dusty Baker joked with Abreu, who was born in Cuba, that he knew there was no football in Abreu’s homeland, “but you’ve got to tackle him and make sure he doesn’t get to the bag.”

Abreu would walk in the seventh, steal second base — his first steal in 925 days — and score again. The Astros evened the series at 2-all, and now Jose Abreu and his teammates are two wins away from reaching the World Series, two victories away from having a shot at becoming the first team in 23 years to win back-to-back titles. Back in spring training, a friend had asked Abreu if it was difficult after leaving the White Sox, an organization he had played for, won his MVP for, over nine seasons. “What are you talking about?” he retorted. “I’m with the champs.”

Abreu began working out in the Astros’ camp well before it officially opened in mid-February, wanting to indoctrinate himself as quickly as possible, and out of excitement for the opportunity to augment a roster that had just won the 2023 World Series. He said he felt right away as if he was welcomed like family.

Abreu would need the full support of teammates, because he had a horrific start: before he hit his first homer in his 51st game with the team, he was hitting .214 — lots of singles, very little power. And the more he struggled, the more work that he put in to try to revitalize his offense. Cintron began to view Abreu’s relentless diligence as a problem. As Abreu relentlessly took batting practice, his coaches believed, he was sapping his energy day after day — and likely prolonging his slump.

On that May day when Abreu walked with Jackson, he assured Jackson that he was working hard, that he was trying to get better. He apologized for how he had performed. He felt bad about how he was doing, Jackson recalled. And he said how much he appreciated all the support he was feeling, from ownership and the front office and Baker and his teammates.

But it took several more months — and a more drastic intervention — before Abreu’s season turned around. He had a sore back, and staffers talked to him about going on the injured list. Abreu pushed back on that idea. He felt like he needed to stay on the field, something he’d always done with the White Sox; in six of his eight full seasons in Chicago, he played in at least 152 games.

He finally relented and was placed on the injured list Aug. 10, getting a chance to let his body and his mind heal. “After that,” Cintron said, “he was a different guy.”

Abreu had 34 hits in his last 31 regular-season games, with eight homers among 16 extra-base hits, and staffers sensed him relaxing. On Thursday night, Abreu told the horseshoe of reporters who surrounded him, “I’m somebody who likes to read. I’m somebody who likes to think positively, listen to stuff about motivation, things like that. I have to acknowledge my family. My wife has always been there for me. My kids are a major motivation to stay positive every day, because they demand more of me each day.”

“This team has helped me in any way possible to be in the best position possible to compete, and I’m grateful to all of them — all of the guys here, the coaches. They’ve always been there for me. All I should really say, truly, is ‘thank you’ to all these guys here who have supported me every step of the way.”

And now, in October, he is rewarding Baker, Jackson and his teammates for their faith in him, for their trust.

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