Stakes raised for Sale-Verlander matchup

CHICAGO -- Playoff optimism was mounting for the Chicago White Sox after they knocked off the Detroit Tigers in the opening game of their series on Monday.

The White Sox extended their lead to three games in the American League Central, and it was only natural for minds to wander to the idea of a series victory and potentially a four- or six-game advantage on the Tigers after Thursday.

Two days later, there are only traces of that optimism remaining after the Tigers defeated the White Sox 8-6 Wednesday for their second consecutive win and reduced Chicago’s lead to just one game.

That brings us to Thursday and perhaps the biggest game of the White Sox’s season. Win and the White Sox snatch a two-game lead into the season’s final 19 games. Lose and it’s all knotted up.

To add the drama of the final regular-season meeting between them, two of the best pitchers in baseball will match up Thursday with the Sox’s Chris Sale going against the Tigers’ Justin Verlander.

With Sale taking the mound, Gavin Floyd, Wednesday’s losing pitcher, believes the White Sox are confident about their chances in the series finale.

“I think we’re pretty cool and collected right now,” Floyd said. “Yeah, it seems we lost the past couple games to them, but we’re in still first, one game up on them. We got our ace going (Thursday). We’re excited about that. We’re going to put today behind us and keep on going. There’s still a lot of baseball left. We’re going to play it out.”

Sale admitted he knows the stakes, but he’s doing his best not to get wrapped up in everything. His goal Thursday is to do what he’s done all season that has led to a 16-6 record with a 2.88 ERA and 168 strikeouts.

“I think everyone knows what’s going on here, but at the same time you still got to go out there with every intention in the world of winning and staying on pace,” Sale said prior to Wednesday’s game. “I’ve said if before, if you start hyping things up and start trying to do too much that’s when the wheels start falling off. That’s not what we need. I’ve got to go out there with the same mindset I’ve had all year, just stick with the game plan and go with it.”

The Tigers won when the two aces met on Sept. 2. Verlander allowed four hits, one run, two walks and struck out 11 in eight innings. Sale gave up six hits, four runs, four walks and struck out seven in six innings.

That loss is one Sale believes he could have prevented.

“Obviously I felt like that one, it got away,” Sale said. “Maybe one or two pitches different and maybe we win that game. I’m not going to sit here and dwell on the past and what ifs. We got to focus on what we got ahead of us.”

Manager Robin Ventura says the Sox won’t dwell on their second straight loss to the Tigers.

“Again, we’re going to have to win games after (Thursday), too,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “Play hard. We’re going to face good pitchers just like (Verlander.) Everybody else that we’re going to face has good pitchers. Anybody can beat you on any given day.

“You just continue to play. We’re not quitting at any point. That’s the one great thing about the team. They’re not going to get down to where they’re giving up. So it’s one of those you continue to play. You have a lot of people that you’re going to play on the schedule that are good, and you just continue to play.”

Konerko agreed and said he doesn’t believe Thursday’s game will decide the White Sox’s playoff fate, win or lose.

“Just try to come out (Thursday) and play as hard as we can regardless of the outcome,” Konerko said. “There’s a lot of games left. There’s not a lot of games left compared to 162, but when you’re talking about a one-game deficit, there’s a lot of games left. A lot of momentum swings from here on out.”