The Chicago White Sox have enjoyed a successful first half of the season while parlaying sound baseball into an extended residence atop the standings. The first place White Sox will have to continue hitting on all cylinders if they wish to stay on top, while continuing to confound baseball pundits.
Rookie manager Robin Ventura has the team playing well beyond expectations this season, working with a blend of youth and high-priced veterans.
Despite Paul Konerko saying this past February that the team can be a success without a playoff appearance, it would be a big disappointment if the team wasted their fantastic first half without reaching the postseason.
The 2012 White Sox are not short on success stories to this point. With the resurgence of Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Jake Peavy, the team can look to some great moments this year.
If those do become just memories of a third-place team destined for the dustbin of baseball history, it would be a massive letdown for a team that has far exceeded preseason projections.
Here are 10 things that have to continue to happen in the second half for the White Sox to win the AL Central.
One aspect of the White Sox's game that has been inconsistent in recent years is their team defense.
The White Sox defense suffered some lapses in the field late in games last season, but under new manager Robin Ventura, the team has greatly improved in the field. The White Sox are currently second in the American League in team errors and fielding percentage.
With Alex Rios moved to right field, and Alejandro De Aza prowling center field this season, the White Sox outfield has played exceptionally well, and also played a crucial rule in Philip Humber's perfect game in April.
The pitchers have reaped the benefits of the team's sparkling first-half defense, in stark contrast to 2011 when reliever Matt Thornton was let down numerous times when he tried to win the closer role last April.
The White Sox have allowed only 14 unearned runs through July 17th, which is the lowest total in the American League.
During his first season as an MLB manager, Ventura's sound work ethic as a player has translated well in the dugout, and the team seems to have benefited from his in-season defensive drills and his focus on the fundamentals of the game.
Stellar defense is a key to the team's success and must continue if the White Sox want to make the postseason.
Several rookies have been running out from behind the left field bullpen gate at U.S. Cellular Field. When they have reached the mound, they have pitched well enough to hold down leads for the team all season.
While White Sox relievers have not always made it an easy watch in the late innings, rookies such as Addison Reed have not only done enough to stay in the majors, but they've performed well enough to help the team to first place at the All-Star break.
Reed has converted 15 of 17 saves this season, and has averaged nine strikeouts per nine innings.
Nate Jones, Hector Santiago and Dylan Axelrod have all made major contributions this season, and with the injury bug landing several White Sox pitchers on the disabled list this season, more inexperienced pitchers continue to be shuffled into the rotation.
No matter how good a rookie performs, he generally will endure a slump as the league makes adjustments.
General manager Kenny Williams may not be done tweaking the team before the non-waiver trade deadline arrives, but if he doesn't add a veteran reliever, the White Sox bullpen will continue to be a youth movement heading into a division race.
The White Sox bullpen needs to continue to keep games close in the late innings if the team has any chance of making the playoffs.
While dominance at home would be a welcome twist to the White Sox's surprising success in 2012, the team needs to continue their winning ways on the road if October baseball is going to happen this season.
Through July 17th, the White Sox have a 26-18 record on the road, with a run-differential of plus-39.
With a big late-July series beginning Friday in Detroit against their division rivals, the Tigers, it's imperative that the White Sox continue to show off their muscle in opponents' ballparks.
One of the more impressive numbers for the White Sox this season is their 3.45 earned run average on the road.
Countless times this season, White Sox starters have pitched lights out, keeping the team in almost every ballgame on the road.
If the White Sox continue to be inconsistent at home, it's critical that the team continues to play loose and winning baseball away from home in the second half.
Rios, who was picked up off the waiver wire by Kenny Williams and the White Sox in 2009, earned a cool $12.5 million last season to regularly draw the ire of fans.
Rios came back with a vengeance in the first half of this season, smacking 12 home runs while driving in 49 runs before the All-Star break.
The two-time All-Star has looked more comfortable in the outfield as well, and has already swiped 14 bases this season.
With such a big salary as well as past flashes of brilliance throughout his career, it has been essential that Rios continues to be an important everyday cog in the White Sox's fifth-ranked offense.
While the White Sox lineup has varied occasionally this season due to minor injuries, the core of the lineup has remained intact while the team has consistently been ranked among the top five offenses in the American League.
The White Sox pitching staff continues to rotate players to and from the disabled list, with the latest victim being starter Gavin Floyd. DL stints by Philip Humber, John Danks and Jesse Crain have turned the team's staff into a patchwork affair, and the White Sox can ill afford a similar fate on offense.
With new third baseman Kevin Youkilis now in Chicago, the team's lineup is solidified and ready for a postseason push. The last thing the team needs is for White Sox hitters to get dinged up and miss extended time during one of the most important stretches for the team in recent memory.
Nagging injuries are common late in the year for most major league players, but most winning teams enjoy injury-free seasons on their way to winning postseason hardware.
One of the best moves of GM Kenny Williams' career in Chicago was his acquisition of third baseman Kevin Youkilis this past June.
Williams traded Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Youkilis. The Red Sox are also picking up most of the tab on Youkilis' remaining contract.
The White Sox annually struggled to find an heir-apparent to Joe Crede at third base after Crede signed with the Minnesota Twins and then retired in 2009.
As evidenced by his recent open letter to Boston Red Sox fans, Kevin Youkilis was a fan favorite, and gave his all when on the field.
During his first few weeks with the White Sox, Youkilis displayed his trademark grinding style and solid bat by leading the team's late surge at the end of the first half.
Youkilis hit three homers and drove in 10 runs during the White Sox's six-game homestand right before the All-Star break.
He is an above-average fielder, and works counts as good as anyone in the league.
Despite struggling for most of this season while still in a Red Sox uniform, Youkilis' nagging injuries and ongoing differences with embattled Red Sox skipper Bobby Valentine may have contributed to his struggles.
Now rejuvenated and healthy with his new team, Youkilis appears ready to continue his outstanding play with the White Sox. His experience will be vital to the team's success late in the season, and perhaps during the postseason.
A revered player during his time with the White Sox, rookie manager Robin Ventura has impressed during his first half-season in the dugout.
Ventura's professionalism as a player and his baseball acumen made him a natural fit for the manager's post, but his lack of experience was a big question mark going into this season.
Ventura has virtually no coaching experience, let alone managerial experience at any level of baseball.
One needs to look back only to last season to find a rookie manager who was completely in above his head. Chicago Cubs manager Mike Quade mixed tactical blunders with poor clubhouse control to earn his pink slip after only one season on the job.
Ventura has avoided the same pitfalls that ruined Quade's career in Chicago, and Ventura appears to be an early-season favorite for the AL Manager of the Year Award.
Ventura, along with pitching coach Don Cooper, has helped to nurture several young players on the team, and has balanced the team's youth with several high-priced veterans. The apparent cohesive clubhouse has been a drastic change from former manager Ozzie Guillen's circus of a clubhouse.
While Ventura's true impact will never be known during the first-half success the team enjoyed, if he continues to guide the White Sox down the path to postseason glory, Ventura will have a job with the White Sox for many years to come.
In his third big-league season with the White Sox, and first as a starting pitcher, Chris Sale has emerged as one of the best pitchers in the American League.
Sale was a standout left-handed pitcher in the White Sox bullpen the last two seasons, posting an ERA of 2.58 and a K/9 ratio of 10.6.
Despite an early setback with arm soreness this season, Sale has pitched magnificently as a starter, clearly solidifying himself as the team's ace for many years to come.
With a current record of 11-2 and a sparkling 2.11 ERA, Sale has become the team's stopper when he takes the mound. If the White Sox have a lead early on when Sale is on the mound, the game is essentially in the bag.
With three of the team's announced post-spring-training starters already spending time on the disabled list this season, Sale's health and continued dominance will be vital to the team's chances of winning the AL Central.
Nobody will likely ever question White Sox starting pitcher Jake Peavy's determination and work ethic, and with continued health in the second half, nobody will have the chance.
Peavy's career in Chicago had been marked by his days on the disabled list. After shoulder surgery and other nagging injuries dragged down Peavy's legacy, expectations were low coming into the 2012 season.
Peavy, who won the NL Cy Young Award in 2007, struggled on the field after joining the team in 2009 on through last season.
One of the keys to the White Sox's success this season has been Peavy's resurgence.
Peavy earned an All-Star Game invitation after posting a 7-5 record with a 2.85 ERA, and was essentially the team's co-ace along with Chris Sale.
Peavy tossed 13 quality starts before the All-Star break, and went deep into ballgames, notching nine starts of seven innings or more, including three complete games. Peavy barely resembled the struggling veteran of the last two-and-a-half seasons with the White Sox.
If Peavy continues to stay healthy and has some gas in the tank come October, the White Sox should be division champs.
During spring training this season, the elephant in the room—or rather the "Big Donkey" in the room—was Adam Dunn and his disastrous 2011 season.
Dunn's historically bad first season with the White Sox weighed the team down for most of last year. Dunn was an empty bat as he regularly struck out, and looked lost while doing it.
An uptick in performance was almost guaranteed because of how low Dunn set the bar last season.
Dunn answered the bell this season, earning an All-Star appearance while knocking out 25 homers before the All-Star break. Dunn's legendary patience also returned this season as he currently leads baseball with the most base-on-balls.
While Dunn is a lock for AL Comeback Player of the Year, he needs to continue to be a force in the White Sox lineup. Dunn, along with Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski and Alex Rios, have done serious damage all season in the middle of the lineup.
Any power outage or a return to his series of awful at-bats from last season will surely sink the White Sox's chances of winning the AL Central.
Adam Dunn was paid big money before the 2011 season to perform as he did in the National League for 10 seasons. The comeback kid of 2012 needs to keep mashing balls over the fence for the White Sox to remain a top-five offense and win their division.