Chicago White Sox Playoff Push: Sox Head into Weekend Alone in First Place

James Kries@@JKriesContributor IJuly 27, 2012

Chicago White Sox Playoff Push: Sox Head into Weekend Alone in First Place

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    The Chicago White Sox, fresh off of a three-game sweep of Minnesota and a day off, head to Texas as sole owners of first place in the AL Central in the first of a three-game series with the Rangers.

    The White Sox were helped out by the Cleveland Indians who roughed up Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander for a four-run seventh inning Thursday night, and beat the Tigers 5-3. The Tigers were knocked out of first place for the first time since last Saturday, when they were in the midst of a three-game sweep of the White Sox.

    While the White Sox now hold a slight half-game lead over the Tigers, the Indians trail the White Sox by 3.5 games. Following their late-inning outburst against Verlander and the Tigers, the Indians scored more than three runs in a game for the first time in their last seven games.

    With the AL Central division lead back in their grasp, the White Sox travel to Texas to take on the AL West leading Rangers.

    The Rangers will be looking to exact some revenge after the White Sox swept the Rangers at U.S. Cellular Field right before the All-Star break. The sweep included a 19-2 beat-down in the first game of that series.

    For the second weekend in a row, the White Sox will be taking on a playoff powerhouse from last season. Last weekend, everything derailed for the White Sox in Detroit, punctuated by ace starting pitcher Chris Sale serving up a rare rough outing.

    The White Sox received help from their division foes this week. The Indians won their series over the Tigers, and the Twins were kind enough to give up 26 runs in three games to the White Sox, as well as sending starter Nick Blackburn to the mound with his 7.99 earned run average in the series finale.

    After their short stint at home this past week, the White Sox hit the road again Friday, continuing their 16-out-of-19 road game stretch following the All-Star break.

    After the White Sox's sweep of the Twins at home this week, the team improved to 27-22 at U.S. Cellular Field. They have won eight out of their last nine games at home. With a nine-game homestand coming up in early August, it will be crucial for the White Sox to continue their winning ways at home while staying above .500 on the road.

    Here is a preview of the White Sox's tough test in Texas this weekend, as well as news and notes affecting the team's playoff push.

Sale Battles Darvish in Game 1 vs. the Rangers

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    Game 1 in Texas pits two all-star pitchers against one another with White Sox ace Chris Sale looking for his 12th win while the Rangers counter with Japanese rookie Yu Darvish.

    Darvish has cooled off since his 7-2 start, dropping two of his last three decisions while seeing his ERA jump to 3.88 after his 18th start of the season.

    Darvish has not disappointed the Rangers who paid nearly $52 million this offseason to negotiate a contract with him.

    In five career games, Sale has a sparkling 1.69 ERA against the Rangers who have managed only a .211 batting average against the 23-year-old.

    Despite his poor outing against the Tigers last Saturday, Sale still has second-best ERA in the American League.

    White Sox fans will be holding their collective breath Saturday with the struggling Philip Humber and his 6.25 ERA taking on All-Star Rangers starter, Matt Harrison.

    The series finale will offer up an intriguing matchup with White Sox starter Gavin Floyd taking the mound against Rangers starter Roy Oswalt.

    Floyd gave up six hits and walked six during the White Sox's win against the Twins Monday night. His season-long inconsistency will be matched up against Oswalt, who the White Sox destroyed in early July during their aforementioned 19-2 mauling of the Rangers. Oswalt's ERA in five starts with the Rangers this season is 5.22.

    While Oswalt's hefty ERA would doom most teams, the Rangers possess the league's best offense with an average of 5.03 runs-per-game.

    With the White Sox's recent explosion at home against the Twins, the offense looks to be back on track following an extended slump suffered after the All-Star break.

White Sox Should Have Youkilis and A.J. Back for Rangers Series

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    The White Sox and their fans suffered a scare this past week when A.J. Pierzynski was sidelined with a right oblique strain, and then third baseman Kevin Youkilis sprained his ankle when rounding first base during Wednesday's win over the Twins.

    Pierzynski missed the last two games of the Twins series while Youkilis was removed after the fourth inning of Wednesday's game. 

    Youkilis is expected to be back in the White Sox lineup to face Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish Friday night.

    While there's a chance that Pierzynski might be ready for Friday night's game, he may be held out another game or two as a precaution.

    White Sox manager Robin Ventura hinted at the team's cautious approach for the White Sox's backstop.

    "For him, he's a tough guy. He could probably play through it, but again, if he injures it worse, he'll probably end up on the DL, so it's just better to be protective of it," said Ventura following Wednesday's win over the Twins.

    Pierzynski has been an important part of the White Sox offense this season, smacking 16 homers with 50 RBI on the season.

    With baseball's most potent offense in the opposing dugout this weekend, the White Sox need all the ammo they can muster on offense to take this series against the Rangers.

Will Kenny Williams Make Another Move Before MLB Trade Deadline?

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    After White Sox general manager Kenny Williams pulled the trigger on deals for Kevin Youkilis and Brett Myers this past month, the White Sox clearly declared themselves playoff contenders in the American League.

    With the MLB non-waiver trade deadline fast approaching, will Williams be satisfied with the current roster?

    Several big-name players have changed addresses this past week, including Ichiro Suzuki and Hanley Ramirez, while some even bigger names continue to be dangled as trade bait.

    While Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels signed a new deal this week, keeping him in Philadelphia, other starters who could help out the White Sox remain on the trading block.

    Zack Greinke, Josh Johnson and Ryan Dempster appear to be the best available pitchers on the market, giving Williams and the White Sox some food for thought as they look to improve their starting rotation.

    The White Sox pitching staff has tailed off a bit since the All-Star break, and a move for a quality starting pitcher will greatly improve the team's chances for a successful pennant run.

A Look at the Wild-Card Race

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    While just the thought of a one-game playoff is nerve-wracking enough, it's good to know that this year's White Sox team has another option to get themselves into the postseason.

    Since the playoff format was changed this offseason, more emphasis has been placed on winning a division. Two wild-card teams will now have to face off in one-game playoff in a win-or-go-home scenario.

    The AL landscape has been shaken up this past week, as the Oakland A's have suddenly emerged as playoff contenders.

    The A's now occupy the second wild-card spot following their recent string of eight wins in their last 10 ballgames. The A's are an amazing 16-3 in July, once again making GM Billy Beane look like a genius following his house-cleaning this past winter.

    With a current record of 53-45, the White Sox would be tied with the A's who join the Los Angeles Angels as the other wild-card leader.

    The Orioles, Rays and Blue Jays are all within four games of the wild-card leaders.

    The Tigers, who trail the White Sox and the wild-card leaders by half-a-game, travel to Toronto this weekend for a three-game series. The Blue Jays are 26-22 at home this season.

John Danks Back Throwing but Not Ready for Live Hitters

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    With White Sox starting pitcher Philip Humber struggling and a deadline deal for a starting pitcher possibly up Kenny Williams' sleeve, the possibility of a starting rotation shake-up is likely to happen over the next few weeks for the White Sox.

    A pitcher who could help stop the White Sox's recent regression of their pitching staff is lefty John Danks.

    Danks has been on the disabled list since May 20 with soreness in his throwing shoulder. He suffered a setback after a June rehab start, but signs are pointing to Danks returning sooner rather than later.

    ESPN Chicago reported that Danks had a brief throwing session from the mound Wednesday and is showing signs of improvement in regards to his soreness.

    “The last couple of days have been improvements. It’s definitely something I needed. Hopefully, we won’t be backtracked from there," said Danks.

    If Danks does return to the rotation during the division race and is effective, the White Sox will be in great shape to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

    It is a lot to ask of Danks, however, considering his extended stint on the DL, along with his poor performance prior to his injury. Danks carried an ERA of 5.70 in nine starts before landing on the DL.