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White Sox lead AL Central but have lots of work to do

By Mark Gonzales, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — The White Sox maintained their three-game lead in the American League Central despite a wacky 11-9 loss Sunday to the Blue Jays that served as a reminder that their work is far from complete.

“I’m happy with what we did as a team in the first half, and now we’ve got the big challenge lying ahead,” pitching coach Don Cooper said after rookie Dylan Axelrod, working on three days’ rest, allowed three two-run home runs in three innings. “Every year it’s not decided until the last week. So we’re in a race that nobody thought we were going to be in, and we have challenges ahead.”

Those challenges relate directly to health and the state of a pitching staff that got plenty of mileage out of All-Stars Chris Sale (10-2) and Jake Peavy (7-5) and rookie left-hander Jose Quintana (4-1). The Sox (47-38) skipped Sale’s turn Sunday so his left arm could get more rest, but they failed to extend their lead to four games entering the four-day All-Star break.

During the Sox’s five-game winning streak that was snapped, the starting pitchers allowed one earned run or fewer in four of those games. The exception was Axelrod, who is taking the place of Philip Humber but could move to the bullpen if Humber returns as soon as July 17 from a right elbow flexor strain.

A rookie-saturated bullpen allowed four runs, but rookie Hector Santiago pitched three innings of one-hit ball and allowed the Sox to bring the winning run to the plate in the seventh and ninth innings.

“We didn’t win the game, but we battled,” said Alex Rios, who capped an All-Star-caliber first half by hitting a three-run home run and two doubles to raise his batting average to .318 with 49 RBIs. “That’s what got us to where we are at right now.”

Usually stoic manager Robin Ventura showed his competitive side by getting ejected in the top of the ninth by home plate umpire D.J. Reyburn. Ventura was furious over a ruling that allowed Colby Rasmus to score from first base on a ground-rule double by Jose Bautista in the sixth inning and Rayburn’s perceived inconsistent strike zone that resulted in three called third strikes against the Sox in the seventh and eighth innings.

Before the game, a Sox official said Ventura would be unavailable after the game because of a pre-scheduled flight. Rios, however, paused before describing Ventura’s feelings.

“Well, yeah, (Ventura) had to let (Reyburn) know,” Rios said.

One of the biggest transformations during the first half has been a relentless offense that rallied from four- and five-run deficits to nearly overtake the Blue Jays.

Kevin Youkilis, who’s hitting .444 during a seven-game hitting streak, and Alexei Ramirez (.500 in his past six games) have fortified a lineup that has been able to overcome seemingly formidable early deficits.

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