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El Natural

The only thing missing from Jose Daniel Abreu's walk-off grand slam Friday night was the ball striking a light tower creating a shower of sparks.

"You feel like the whole place could kind of feel it," said Sox leadoff man and center fielder Adam Eaton, recounting the situation: bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, Sox down 6-4 to Tampa Bay. "When he got up it was like, 'Uh, oh. Something great's going to happen.' And indeed it did."

Roy Hobbs was fiction. The Sox's "El Natural" is real. Fans had to settle for an exploding scoreboard rather than a shattered light tower, but his blast into the right-field bullpen sent 17,000 patrons into a frenzy - along with his teammates.

Technically, Abreu is a rookie, but in reality he's anything but. At 27, having played professionally in Cuba, he is experienced, seasoned, mature and confident. After his game-ending heroics, as he approached home plate, he threw his batting helmet into the air, and jumped into the arms of his adoring teammates. Even graybeards Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn seemed to shed a few years as they jumped up and down, celebrating the dramatic win.

But there's more. No one dumped a cooler of Gatorade over Abreu. There was no shaving cream pie to the face. This guy is no normal first-year player. He possesses a dignity that already has gained the respect and admiration of teammates and opponents alike. Who in his right mind would shove a towelful of shaving suds into his stately countenance? It just wouldn't seem right.

The native Cuban has become the talk of baseball, leading the majors in home runs (10) and RBI (31). If he's not the American League Player of the Week, they should discontinue the award.

All he did when the Sox won four of seven games was go 9-for-29 with five homers and 14 RBI. He hit center-field home runs in Detroit - it's 420 to dead center - on consecutive nights, the first one coming off Justin Verlander. His game-winner Friday was his second round-tripper of the game. He's done that three times already this season.

Twice last week he was hitless, including Saturday night when he was 0-for-4 without knocking a ball out of the infield. Not surprisingly, the Sox lost 4-0. When Abreu hits, the Sox have a chance. When he doesn't, they're not going to win too many.

The irrepressible Eaton made Abreu's grand slam possible. With one out and the bases loaded, Eaton hit an apparent double-play ground ball to second baseman Ben Zobrist, who momentarily juggled the ball. Eaton barely beat the throw to first to keep the game alive. No other Sox player would have outrun that ball.

Then Rays manager Joe Maddon, a very bright fellow, did a stupid thing. He challenged the call, leaving his volatile closer Grant Balfour, who had just gotten into an f-bomb-laden exchange with the mild-mannered Konerko after walking Paulie, standing on the mound while the umps talked to Replay Review Central in New York.

Balfour already was unhinged. Standing on the mound for a couple of minutes fuming with who knows whom - most probably himself - until the umps signaled Eaton safe added to his craziness. He walked Marcus Semien on five pitches before El Natural delivered his blast.

As Abreu added to his April numbers, he approached and then passed the previous rookie record of eight home runs in the season's opening month. Kent Hrbek, Carlos Delgado and Albert Pujols jointly held that now-shattered record.

Lest we become irrationally exuberant over the Abreu's feats, we should note that there have always been rookies making huge splashes their first time around the league before seeing more curveballs and change-ups that gradually send them into oblivion.

Take the case of Bob (Hurricane) Hazle. The year was 1957 when the Milwaukee Braves recalled Hazle from Triple-A where he was having a modest season. All Hurricane did for the World Series-bound Braves was hit a robust .403/.477/.649 in 41 games and help the Braves defeat the Yankees in the Series.

The following May, the Braves traded Hazle to Detroit where he played sparingly before spending a couple of seasons in the minors before retiring at 29.

On the other hand, Pujols has performed nicely since his astonishing rookie year in 2001, winning three MVP awards since. Delgado hit 473 home runs over 17 years. And Hrbek was a stalwart for the Twins for 14 seasons. I'm confident that before Abreu is finished, he will compare favorably with that trio rather than the rookie burnouts.

Another older rookie, 29-year-old Scott Carroll, appeared out of nowhere on Sunday to somehow limit the Rays to one earned run in beating 2012 Cy Young winner David Price 9-2. Carroll wasn't even in the big-league camp during spring training after spending seven seasons bouncing around the minors in the Cincinnati and Sox organizations. For all his efforts he had a 27-38 career record, which included a bout of inactivity due to Tommy John surgery.

But the Sox are desperate. Gone from the rotation that started the season are Felipe Paulino - we're not honestly looking forward to his return - and Chris Sale, both on the disabled list. Erik Johnson was demoted to Charlotte after Friday night's pitiful showing - four runs and four walks in 1-2/3 innings.

General Manager Rick Hahn summoned lefthander Charlie Leesman from Charlotte to face the Tigers on Tuesday, but he was hit hard in 2-2/3 innings, earning a ticket back to North Carolina.

When the Texas Rangers saw enough of Hector Noesi, he of the 11.74 ERA, Hahn dealt for the Dominican righthander. Noesi keeps a packed suitcase since this is his third team already this season. The Sox presently have five pitchers who weren't with them on Opening Day.

Sale figures to return by mid-May, but manager Robin Ventura will have to patch together a starting rotation until then and quite possibly a lot longer. The mediocre showings of John Danks and Jose Quintana, the two starters still standing, hasn't helped.

So how has this team split its first 26 games minus Avisail Garcia and a pitching staff that yields more than five runs a game and leads MLB in bases on balls?

Very simple. The New York Knights rallied from the doldrums to win the pennant because they had Roy Hobbs. The Sox have Jose Abreu.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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