Of course, any team can look bad when going up against quality starting pitching, such as the performance turned in Thursday night by Jose Contreras (6-3). The right-hander quickly has become the leading candidate for American League Comeback Player of the Year, improving to 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA in his last six starts by allowing one run on four hits in seven innings.
Contreras helped the White Sox (33-26) complete a three-game sweep of the downtrodden Royals (23-37), who have lost 11 straight games on the road and 15 of their last 17 games overall. But dropping an opponent even lower when it's down and beating lesser competition stand out as common traits among teams with strong postseason aspirations.
"They're not playing well right now, but this was a battle between two who were struggling in those particular days," said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, whose team came into the start of this seven-game homestand on a three-game losing streak. "And they battled a lot.
"We won yesterday in extra innings and the day before we battled to win and thank God, today, I only had to use two pitchers. But you can see they have a better ballclub. They play better and they pitch better. There's not an easy rival in the American League."
Taking three straight over the Royals improved the White Sox mark to 17-8 against the American League Central this season, another positive sign for a team now holding a 2 1/2-game lead over the Twins. A four-run second against Gil Meche (3-8) pretty much provided all the offense needed during Thursday's contest.
Nick Swisher singled home a run, Pablo Ozuna's ground out scored a second and Orlando Cabrera's two-out single to right brought in Swisher and Toby Hall. Alexei Ramirez added a run-scoring base hit in the fourth, and Jim Thome completed the scoring with his 12th home run in the seventh.
Over the course of this three-game series, the White Sox went deep a combined eight times. Pitching with the big cushion made life easier for Contreras, who struck out three, walked two and did an outstanding job without the use of his devastating split-finger.
"On days like that, when he doesn't have his No. 1 pitch, we need him to be effective with his other pitches," said Hall of Contreras, who threw 61 of his 100 pitches for strikes. "We had to go to his slider and his change, and he was spotting fastballs. He was awesome."
"That's a key to success," added Contreras through translator Ozzie Guillen Jr. "I noticed my split wasn't working, so I went to my change and moving the fastball on the outside corner and on the inside corner. If you depend on one pitch, you won't win in this division."
Jermaine Dye, Thome, Cabrera and Ozuna knocked out two hits a piece in the White Sox 10-hit attack, as the team won for its ninth time in its last 13 home games. They carry quite a bit of momentum into a four-game, wraparound weekend set against Minnesota, which the South Siders deem no more important than any other series ahead on their schedule.
The quality of competition certainly will increase with the arrival of Ron Gardenhire's crew. But the White Sox are in a far better place as a unit, with greater focus placed once again on the field, as opposed to on the words from Guillen, hitting coach Greg Walker or general manager Ken Williams.
According to Contreras, even the three-game losing streak on the road in St. Petersburg wasn't an indictment of his first-place team.
"In Tampa, people think the White Sox played bad," Contreras said. "I think we played amazing. Give credit to Tampa Bay. They got clutch hits in the right time."
This theory could hold true with the trio of victories over the Royals. It wasn't so much that Kansas City was bad, but more about the White Sox being better.
"It's not surprising. It's a game of ups and downs," Swisher said. "For us, it's been a great homestand, and I think when you lose games like that, and come back and do what we did, that shows a lot of character on our behalf. Regardless of what happens off the field, or whatever is written, we're all gonna stick tight and we're gonna do what we need to do on the field."
"You can see the difference in the dugout," Guillen added. "Everything is coming up together and every day we have to beat somebody different, and that's what we are doing now. I know we will get back to struggles, because that's part of baseball. We're not going to be perfect every week, but hopefully we continue to win as long as we can, when we can."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less