MINNEAPOLIS -- At some point during each of the seven seasons Jon Garland has pitched professionally for the White Sox, the talented right-hander expects to go through some sort of dead-arm period.

It's of no real concern to anyone but possibly the White Sox faithful, who don't particularly like the results during the time frame Garland battles through this uncomfortable stretch. But once Garland has moved free and clear of the dead-arm period during the last couple of seasons, the ensuing performances have placed the sinker-ball specialist as one of baseball's elite hurlers.

Take Saturday's 4-1 victory over the Twins before 46,215 at the Metrodome as an example. Garland worked 7 2/3 masterful innings, allowing one unearned run on a mere five hits, as he improved to 14-4 overall and lifted the White Sox American League Wild Card lead to two games over Minnesota (71-51).

The victory also raised Garland's ledger to 10-1 over his last 12 starts, including a 2.98 ERA, which has dropped his 2006 ERA from 6.19 to 4.73. Garland's improved mound fortunes begin with the right-hander keeping his pitches down in the zone, proven true by eight ground-ball outs Saturday, and throwing strikes consistently.

But the biggest difference for Garland currently is that his dead-arm period simply arrived early this season.

"It felt like that. It didn't feel strong," said Garland, who threw 72 of his 112 pitches for strikes, fanning five and walking one. "I was feeling for all my pitches [early in the season], I was trying to create instead of trusting.

"When it turned around, I was able to go out there and let the ball go out of my hand and not try to feel for the zone. You can see the difference when the ball is down."

Along with Garland's top-notch effort, increasing his AL lead in overall victories during the past two seasons, the White Sox biggest change between Saturday's win and Friday's loss was simply beating the Twins at their own game. Ozzie Guillen's crew was aggressive on the basepaths and took advantage of Minnesota's two errors to score two unearned runs off Brad Radke (12-9).

Jim Thome scored the first and last runs for the White Sox (73-49), both coming in rather strange fashion. In the opening inning, Thome reached with two outs when right fielder Michael Cuddyer and second baseman Luis Castillo lost his routine popup in the roof and watched it fall for a double. Paul Konerko followed with a ground ball in the hole to Jason Bartlett, but the usually sure-handed shortstop short-hopped first baseman Justin Morneau and allowed Thome to cross the plate.

Thome opened the eighth with a double off reliever Willie Eyre, and a ground ball into right-center was hustled into an extra-base hit by the big man. Two outs later, Thome was held at third when A.J. Pierzynski singled to left field. But Pierzynski assumed Thome would be sent in, making the wide turn at first, in an attempt to get the Twins to cut off the throw home.

Instead, Pierzynski was caught in what looked to be an inning-ending rundown. Somehow, though, Pierzynski beat Nick Punto's throw back to first as Thome crossed the plate, giving the White Sox catcher a chance to laugh afterwards at turning a mistake into an insurance run.

"I completely [messed] that up," said Pierzynski. "I'm so used to [third-base coach] Joey [Cora] waving everyone home. I was trying to get him to cut it. I rounded first and looked up and saw he wasn't sending him and thought, 'Oh, no. I'm in trouble.'"

Scott Podsednik added a run-scoring single in the second, and Rob Mackowiak contributed his fourth home run of the season with one out in the fourth. Mackowiak had time to enjoy this particular blast, launching it 417 feet into the right-field upper deck.

"He left a changeup up in the zone more than he would like it, and I was fortunate to get one up," Mackowiak said.

With this small but significant run support, the remainder of the victorious effort was left up to Garland, Matt Thornton and Bobby Jenks (Major League-leading 35th save). Garland retired 14 straight batters from the third to the eighth before allowing Jason Tyner and Castillo's singles with two outs in the inning.

Thornton retired Punto on a popup to Tadahito Iguchi to end the threat, and Jenks closed out one of the White Sox most important victories of the 2006 campaign. With Texas' 3-1 victory over Detroit at Comerica Park, the White Sox sit 5 1/2 games back in the AL Central.

"It's important, because now we know we leave here with a lead for the Wild Card, no matter what happens," Pierzynski said. "We can go to Detroit with confidence and hopefully get something done there."

"We really need this one for the momentum of the team," Guillen added. "You lose two here, going into [Sunday], all of a sudden you don't feel the same way. The way Garland threw, he was outstanding."

Garland has been outstanding since June 8, or to be even more precise, since his arm began to feel strong again. It's an important component for the White Sox to have, with every game meaning so much.

The lively effort Saturday was not lost on the opposition.

"That was the best I've seen Garland, ever," said Minnesota center fielder Torii Hunter. "He was hitting his spots. He didn't throw one pitch down the middle."

"He didn't leave anything over the plate," Punto added. "He used all the corners and kept us off-balance with his changeup. He's pitching with a lot of confidence. He didn't give us much to hit tonight."