CHICAGO -- For the first time since July 23, the White Sox find themselves out of first place in the American League Central.
That change started at approximately 8:45 p.m. CT Wednesday night, when the Tigers (83-72) rallied to upend the Royals by one run at Comerica Park.
And it became officially a one-game deficit about two hours later, when the Indians finished off a 6-4 victory to claim the series at U.S. Cellular Field. Both the Tigers and White Sox have seven games remaining, with the White Sox playing host to the Rays for four starting on Thursday followed by three in Cleveland, and the Tigers following up their home finale against the Royals on Thursday with three at Target Field this weekend and then three in Kansas City.
One thing is certain about the final week of this 2012 regular season: If the White Sox walk 12 hitters as they did against the Indians (65-91), there's not much of a chance they will be playing postseason baseball.
"It was tough out there tonight. We didn't deserve to win that game," said White Sox captain and first baseman Paul Konerko. "This is the big leagues. You've got to play all nine innings, and you have to play them well to beat a team. We didn't do that tonight. That doesn't mean we can't start it tomorrow and do it the right way and get after it."
"You can't win a game walking 12 guys," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "It seemed like every inning there were guys all over the bases. We did a great job keeping ourselves in the game and giving ourselves a chance. It could have been real ugly there."
Their seventh loss in eight games certainly wasn't textbook baseball by the White Sox (82-73), but Pierzynski was on target with his assessment. Six pitchers issued a combined 12 free passes, their highest total since walking 12 at Fenway Park on Sept. 12, 2003, and allowed nine hits. Yet, they were able to minimize the damage and keep it close until the end.
"Honestly, they did a good job getting out of most of it," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura of his hurlers, who combined to throw 126 strikes out of 217 pitches. "We've asked them to a do a lot. Tonight we asked them to do a lot and we just came up short."
"We were playing a really good team that is fighting for some wins, so they were giving us their best," said Cleveland second baseman and Chicago-area product Jason Kipnis, who walked three times and swiped two bases. "They're maybe struggling a little bit right now, but we didn't help them out. I thought we had good at-bats and put the pressure on them."
A sixth-inning, bases-loaded at-bat with nobody out between Nate Jones and Carlos Santana seemed to be a turning point in the contest. Santana battled the hard-throwing right-hander for 11 pitches before drawing a walk on pitch No. 12 to force home the tying run. Santana took a borderline 1-2 pitch from Jones, called a ball by home-plate umpire Jerry Layne, to keep the at-bat alive.
With the bases still loaded, Jones was able to strike out Russ Canzler and Matt Thornton induced a Travis Hafner double-play grounder, from Thornton to Pierzynski to Konerko, to end the frame tied at 4.
Lou Marson drew a one-out walk from Thornton (4-9) in the seventh, the third walk of the game for Marson, and moved to third on Ezequiel Carrera's double. Shin-Soo Choo followed with a high chopper to Konerko, who grabbed the ball and stepped on first in one motion, but his throw to the plate was a bit up the line and allowed Marson to score the go-ahead run.
"There was almost no chance, unless Paul threw it perfect, and he threw it a little bit up the line," Pierzynski said. "It was a tough play. Paul did the best he could. He got the out at first and made a good throw but not a great throw. It needed to be a great throw."
Hector Santiago started and allowed three runs on five hits over 3 1/3 innings. He was staked to a 3-1 lead in the first when the White Sox took advantage of Cleveland starter Justin Masterson's wildness.
Masterson threw only 17 of his 37 pitches for strikes in that opening frame, walking Konerko to force in a run and yielding an Alex Rios sacrifice fly and Pierzynski's run-scoring double. Rios' 88 RBIs tie a single-season career high.
Cleveland tied the game on Kipnis' two-run single in the fourth off Brian Omogrosso, who relieved Santiago after a walk to Choo loaded the bases with one out, only to have the White Sox regain the lead in the bottom of the fifth. Alexei Ramirez's two-out double off Masterson scored Pierzynski.
Nonetheless, the White Sox are looking up at first place for the first time in two months. They also are playing their worst baseball of the year at the worst possible time.
That fact doesn't reduce their optimism for making a quick turnaround, not like 12 walks temporarily sapped that enthusiasm on Wednesday.
"We still have to win games. We can't play like we did tonight. I know that," Pierzynski said. "We jump out to a lead and we have to shut them down. Unfortunately, tonight we weren't able to do that. Hopefully, tomorrow will be a better day."
"We're going to continue to battle," Ventura said. "We're going to scratch and claw. We don't plan on going anywhere."