|Robin Ventura's White Sox have struggled at the worst possible time. (US Presswire)|
CHICAGO -- It's not about how many days you spend in first place.
If it were, the Indians would be giving Manny Acta an extension. Nobody in the American League Central has spent more time in first place the last two years than Acta's Indians.
Nobody will spend more time there this year than the White Sox.
Thursday was their first day out of first since the final week of July, and just the fourth since June.
How would they respond?
"We're going to find out," one White Sox player said Thursday afternoon.
We found out.
Maybe that's not fair. Maybe what happened Thursday night, in a 3-2 White Sox loss to the Rays, had a lot more to do with James Shields and the red-hot Rays than it did with the White Sox. Maybe it was just a continuation of what has happened the last couple of weeks, as the Sox have seen their season come apart.
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Maybe the White Sox can find some magic in the six games that remain, and maybe the Tigers will stumble again on the road in Minnesota and Kansas City.
But this wasn't good, and this sure doesn't look good for the Sox.
Two games back with six games remaining. Two games, the biggest deficit the White Sox have faced since May.
"I believe anybody will tell you we need to win out," Jake Peavy said. "If it doesn't happen, there's no one to blame but ourselves. We've had opportunities."
Opportunities that they've fumbled away, just as they did with Thursday's game.
As good as Shields is, he handed the White Sox bases-loaded, nobody out in two consecutive innings, because of three walks and a hit batter. The White Sox scored just two runs, one on another hit batter, the other on a double play.
Later on, before Evan Longoria hit his game-winning home run in the ninth, the White Sox had other baserunners and did nothing. Or they did worse than nothing.
After A.J. Pierzynski's leadoff single in the eighth, pinch hitter Dewayne Wise failed twice to bunt, then struck out. When Alexei Ramirez followed with a fly ball to center field, pinch runner Jordan Danks was called out for failing to retouch second base on his way back to first.
"You don't execute, you're not going to win," manager Robin Ventura said. "It's been [going on] for a little while now."
Since that makeup-game win over the Tigers that seemed to put the White Sox in the driver's spot for the playoffs, the Sox have more or less driven right off the road. They lost two of three in Kansas City, lost three straight to the Angels in Anaheim and then lost two of three at home to the Indians.
And many of them have been just as ugly -- or even uglier -- than Thursday.
"We picked a really bad times to play bad baseball," Matt Thornton said.
They don't sound like a team that's panicking. Ventura, the first-year, first-time manager, doesn't seem to have changed a bit under the late-season pressure.
"Just play," he said Thursday afternoon.
There was one line of thought that finally falling into second place would allow the White Sox to relax, to just play, if that's what you want to call it.
"Sometimes you might get a better performance," Rays manager Joe Maddon suggested.
The White Sox didn't get a better performance Thursday. They got another performance like the few that came before it.
They got another day in second place, this one with a two-game deficit, this one with the days quickly disappearing off the schedule.
"This team will finish it out," Paul Konerko promised Thursday night. "This team will play hard."
Right now, though, it looks like the only thing the White Sox are finishing out is their late-season collapse.