DETROIT -- The 162-game American League Central race now has become a 29-game sprint to the 2012 title.
Two teams, the White Sox and the Tigers, sit with identical 72-61 records, courtesy of Detroit's three-game sweep this weekend at Comerica Park. The final moment of Robin Ventura's crew seventh straight loss at the Tigers' home ballpark came Sunday night, behind Justin Verlander, Delmon Young and despite a near ninth-inning rally pulled off by the visitors in a 4-2 loss before 42,192.
Orlando Hudson's line drive to center off closer Jose Valverde (28th save), with runners on first and third and two outs, was tracked down by center fielder Austin Jackson and dropped the White Sox to 3-18 over their last 21 games played at Comerica. When Detroit swept the White Sox last Sept. 2-4, it knocked the South Siders 8 1/2 games out of first and all but ended their season.
Starting with Monday evening's game against the Twins at U.S. Cellular Field, it will be up to the White Sox to not let history repeat itself.
"We just have to regroup after this," said White Sox captain Paul Konerko, who finished 1-for-4 on Sunday and 2-for-12 in the series. "Good pitching beats good hitting. Great pitching really beats it. That's the moral of this story here."
"They're good, and they've answered every bell so far," said Detroit manager Jim Leyland of the White Sox. "We just have to play baseball and continue to enjoy it, have fun playing the game and be ready to play every day. If we do that, however it plays out, it plays out."
Sunday night's nationally televised contest played out as a battle between two of the AL Cy Young front-runners in Verlander (13-7) and Chris Sale (15-6). And that's how it stood with the game tied at 1 in the sixth and Sale facing Young.
For two at-bats and two strikes into this third trip to the plate, Sale had completely fooled Young with his slider. Young had plenty of chances to connect on that particular devastating pitch, with the southpaw having thrown eight to the left fielder.
That ninth slider ultimately cost the White Sox sole possession of first place. Young's connection came with one out, Omar Infante on second and Miguel Cabrera on first. His 17th home run and second game-winning hit of this three-game sweep landed in the left-field stands on a pitch from Sale that as Ventura said, looked like it was going to hit the dirt.
"It should've been strike three. The ball was in the dirt. I just got lucky," Young said. "You try to put a ball in play and hope for the best."
"I just fell a little short," said Sale, who threw 61 of his 106 pitches for strikes over six innings, striking out seven and walking four. "Delmon put a good swing on what I thought was a decent pitch. Just went their way."
Sale's frustration over that good swing carried over into the White Sox dugout, where the low-key but highly competitive southpaw knocked over a container full of bubble gum.
"Guys do that," said Ventura of Sale's brief outburst. "Competitors do that -- as long as he's not hitting something with his left hand."
"Across the way, I knew what we had," Sale said. "I just didn't keep it there."
The "across the way" reference was directed at Verlander, who took over the Major League strikeout lead (209) by fanning 11. He reclaimed that lofty standing from teammate Max Scherzer, who dominated the White Sox on Saturday.
Verlander yielded Alejandro De Aza's homer on the second pitch of the game but nothing more over eight innings and 124 pitches, improving to 12-1 over his last 13 starts against the White Sox. The White Sox finished 2-for-27 with runners in scoring position during this series, but some of that failure had to do with Detroit's one-two punch.
"Scherzer and Verlander the last couple of days were as good as I've ever seen both of them," said A.J. Pierzynski, who finished 1-for-4 in Sunday's loss. "It's tough when you're facing these guys and you have to try and string hits together and get it done."
"Hopefully, next time when we meet up with them, we'll be better," Konerko said. "But the most important thing now is just to get back out there ready tomorrow night."
Hudson's blast almost gave the White Sox a chance for an improbable comeback, starting with two outs and nobody on base against Valverde. Konerko admitted it would have been great to have that drive clear Jackson, but it wasn't meant to be as the White Sox finished their seven-game road trip 1-6.
Detroit's weekend sweep didn't give the Tigers complete control of the division's top spot, so it's certainly not a death sentence for the White Sox. It did swing momentum in the Tigers' favor, momentum both sides know can change frequently over the next 29 games, especially with four head-to-head contests scheduled in Chicago from Sept. 10-13.
"This wasn't the Super Bowl today. This was a game," Leyland said. "We had a good weekend. You have to enjoy it, but in about 12 hours, we have the Cleveland Indians coming here."
"Sometimes you have to hit the bottom to get going again. Hopefully, this is the bottom and we can turn it around," Pierzynski said. "There are a lot of teams that would kill to be in the position we're in so we just have to take the bull by the horns and try to get it done."