The Chicago White Sox are in a position to make the postseason for the first time since 2008. However, there is a lot of baseball to be played before an American League Central Division banner can be claimed.
The surprising White Sox hold a three-game lead over Cleveland at the All-Star break. Detroit, the preseason favorite in the division, lurks just 3.5 games back. Both teams have to be taken seriously as contenders, just as the Chisox should now be.
Two seasons ago, the White Sox led the Central by a half game on July 11. They went on to drop from first in mid-August and foundered in September as Minnesota wound up winning the division by six games.
How does Chicago hold off the challengers and claim an AL Central title in 2012? It could come down to the following five keys in the second half.
The return of Philip Humber is the first half of the equation concerning the White Sox's starting pitching. If Humber can come back and be an effective fifth starter, it could take some of the dependence off the arms of Jake Peavy, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.
Gavin Floyd continuing to throw as well as he has of late would also aid the Chicago cause. If Dylan Axelrod has to make a lot of starts, it could be problematic. True, he could respond to the pressure, but more experienced arms around can only help spread out the workload and keep those young arms fresh.
The X-factor could well be the possible return of John Danks, whenever that may be. If he could make a return in mid-August and find a groove, he could provide a kick in the pants down the stretch.
Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn were named to the the All-Star team, but neither player has been at his best as of late.
Konerko has hit .245 with three homers since June 1. The captain may or may not be bothered by a left wrist issue which was addressed earlier in the season. He may just be in a momentary funk. Either way, Konerko's bat is needed as things heat up in the last two months.
Dunn's turnaround in production has been a big reason that Chicago leads the Central. However, a .174 average from June 1 until now has taken his season average to just .208.
These two bats need to heat up again, and soon.
One player who has really picked it up with his bat is shortstop Alexei Ramirez. Since the start of June, he is hitting .325 and starting to drive in runs further down in the order.
The home runs haven't come, but Ramirez is hitting liners all over the ballpark lately. Kevin Youkilis has also had a hot bat since coming to the White Sox.
On the mound, Floyd is a pitcher who has shown a flair for turning in streaks of inspired work. A big second-half surge by Floyd along with some new heroes at the plate could keep Chicago on top.
Chicago's undoing in recent stretch runs has been a failure to win key games against division opponents. The last month of the season will again require the White Sox to come up big against their closest rivals.
The White Sox travel to Detroit to close out their impending 10-game road trip. The key stretch will begin August 31, when they visit the Tigers again for three games.
Starting on August 31, Chicago has 10 games with Detroit and another six with the Indians, whom the White Sox visit on the season's final series. Chicago must win the majority of those 16 games.
That's not discounting the other division teams. Chicago has a dozen games left with Minnesota and another 15 with Kansas City.
Dominating the weaker teams in their division has not been a strength of the White Sox in recent years. Those wins have to be earned on the field.
Kenny Williams may not need to make a blockbuster move in late July. However, it is hard to think that the White Sox GM will let the trade deadline come and go without trying to give his club a shot in the arm.
Right now, it would seem that picking up an experienced reliever wouldn't be a bad pickup even if Jesse Crain is able to come back and pitch soon. A bat off the bench might prove useful. That could come in the form of Dan Johnson, who is killing the ball in Triple-A Charlotte, or via another deal.
Williams may have already made the big trade in acquiring Youkilis last month. However, the right piece down the stretch might be the difference-maker in the AL Central.