- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- The homestand was built up as a chance for the Chicago White Sox to show they were serious contenders, to cleanse the palate from three losses in four days in Baltimore, to bring in big crowds to revel in the glory that is White Sox baseball.
Three games against the Minnesota Twins, three more against the Detroit Tigers. A true gantlet of the finest the AL Central has to offer. Division titles aren't just handed out, after all, except occasionally in the AL West.
Instead of a division slugfest, we got a slow fade toward an early vacation.
The Sox's 2-4 homestand started with a 12-6 loss to the Twins last week and ended with a 13-8 loss to the Tigers on Sunday. Fitting bookends for the week that was.
Nothing's decided one way or the other, but this is a team that needs a day off and a fresh start. Someone get Mark Grace's recipe for a slumpbuster, fast.
"To me, a very bad homestand, terrible," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "They can say whatever they say, do whatever they do, very bad. Very bad pitching. When we pitch well, we're not hitting."
The loss Sunday dropped the Sox three games back of Minnesota in the AL Central, with a three-game series starting in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Guillen's club, overflowing with confidence just two weeks ago, is saddled with a foundering bullpen, a Freddy Garcia-sized hole in the rotation and a lot of tired bats. There's no question this team is still in the race, but there's also no doubt this week hurt.
"We're still competing for a division here in the middle of August and we have to look at that as not a bad thing," Paul Konerko said. "There are a lot of teams that would trade places with us. We can't be down. We're in a good spot if we take advantage of it."
But there's the rub. The Sox have to take advantage of it.
Despite his team fighting back from a four-run deficit midway through Sunday's game, Guillen's biggest complaint after the game was his perception that the Sox lacked fight.
"I'll be honest with you, the ballclub didn't have energy today," Guillen said. "How many runs did we score? Ten runs, nine, eight? I don't see any energy today in the ballclub. I hope it was me."
How bad was it? Even their pitching coach couldn't muster up a little brio in getting thrown out of the game.
Don Cooper's ejection in the seventh had all the entertainment value of a Hawk-less broadcast.
Cooper got the hook from the dugout for arguing balls and strikes with plate umpire Jeff Nelson while rookie Chris Sale was on the mound. Cooper was on the bullpen phone at the time, a Sox PR official said, and never left the dugout to get his money's worth.
Guillen nearly went on the field to fight for his pitching coach, but threw his arms in the air and sat back down on his perch, resigned to the situation.
"Cooper's very bad at arguments," Guillen said later. "Because when you're going to lose 500 bucks, you better make it worth it. That's all I can say. He was arguing strikes and balls. When the umpire throws you out, and you disappear from the dugout, you're a chicken. The fine's going to be the same whether you go out or you go in -- make it worth it. That's what I do."
The failure to entertain was endemic. The game took 3½ hours and for all the runs that were scored, there was little rhythm and less enjoyment. There was an announced crowd of 36,287, but late in the game, when the outcome was still in doubt, the stands were populated only by Tigers fans and masochists.
Maybe the fans that bailed sensed what was coming.
This loss falls squarely on the bullpen, which managed to give up eight runs in the last three innings, negating a nice comeback chance for the Sox, who fell behind 5-1 after Garcia's listless five innings of work.
The bullpen has been mostly reliable, and at times looked like a championship-caliber unit, but thanks to injury, overuse and general ineffectiveness, it looks more questionable than the Bears' special teams.
Of the four relievers who pitched Sunday, Sale was the only one worth anything.
J.J. Putz earned the common pronunciation of his surname, with another bad outing. Putz was lights-out earlier this season, but now he's left to dodge the media, postgame, as he tries to regroup.
Putz (5-5) got charged with his second blown save in as many games. With one on and two out in the eighth, he walked Austin Jackson and gave up a two-run triple to Johnny Damon. Andruw Jones didn't help matters by muffing a running catch on a Brandon Inge fly ball to give the Tigers a 9-7 lead.
To be fair, Putz hadn't pitched three consecutive games since the 2007 season.
"He's thrown the ball well all year long," Guillen said. "I'm not going to give up on him. I don't give up on too many people that easy."
Jones homered to start the eighth, but Guillen's decision to use Tony Pena in the ninth wound up costing the team. Pena gave up a leadoff homer to Jhonny Peralta, and four runs in all. Guillen didn't have Bobby Jenks, who is in limbo with a back problem, and seemed to be saving Thornton for a possible 10th inning.
"I was pretty confident with Pena, at least to go through that inning," Guillen said. "He couldn't get anything done."
The Sox's 25-5 run, their domination at home, that feeling of invincibility, if not inevitability, are all in the past now. What we have before us is a team grasping for a life preserver. The Sox have been beaten down by the schedule -- four games in Detroit, four in Baltimore, and six straight night games -- and maybe by championship expectations.
"When we were winning a lot of games we didn't really try to get a win every day," said Konerko, who hit a two-run, go-ahead homer in the sixth inning. "We were concentrating on playing the game the right way and in each inning, each situation, just trying to be good. And it just added up to a win every day.
"We'll just try to get back to that. If we do that we'll get back to where we were."
Former White Sox manager Jerry Manuel used to say that he didn't pay attention to the division races until the Bud Billiken Day parade.
The parade was Saturday. Ominous timing, don't you think?
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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