Buehrle's stretch of excellence ends

Mark Buehrle took the mound for the Chicago White Sox against the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday night riding a streak of 18 straight starts with three or fewer runs allowed. Buehrle’s string of exceptional performances goes back to April 22, which means that the last time he was dinged for at least four on the board, Derek Jeter and Jim Thome were early in their milestone pursuits, Buster Posey's left ankle was still intact, and everybody was asking, “What’s wrong with the Red Sox?”

Trivia buffs take note: The last White Sox pitcher to go 18 straight starts with three or fewer runs surrendered was Frank Elmer Smith of the 1909 squad. Smith went by the nickname “Piano Mover” because he made a few extra bucks toting Steinways during the offseason. According to his SABR Baseball Biography Project profile, Smith liked to brag that he could “carry a baby grand up four flights of stairs without a rest.”

In contrast, Buehrle is making $14 million in the final installment of a four-year, $56 million contract. All he has to do is help make White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Kenny Williams forget that they’re paying Adam Dunn $12 million to slug .296 with a .590 OPS.

As it turns out, Buehrle’s streak ended when he allowed four runs on 12 hits over 7 1/3 innings in a 4-1 loss to Cleveland at U.S. Cellular Field. He was outpitched by the Indians’ Fausto Carmona, and the White Sox missed out on a chance to move into second place for the first time since April 12 and pass the Indians in the standings for the first time since April 4. The Piano Mover and the Tribe are both safe for the time being.

At the risk of flogging the same theme ad nauseam, it’s tough for the White Sox to generate any momentum with two of their three de facto “boppers’’ making such negligible contributions. Paul Konerko ranks among the American League’s top five with 27 homers and a .556 slugging percentage. But center fielder Alex Rios, hitting .213 with seven homers in 413 at-bats, took a seat again for Alejandro De Aza, a fringe big leaguer who at least brings energy and some speed to the mix. As for Dunn, he singled in three at-bats to raise his average to .164. Just to put that in perspective, Dunn could go 15-for-his-next-15 and he still wouldn’t be hitting .200.

Former Indians outfielder Jody Gerut dropped by the Indians’ broadcast booth during the middle innings and did his best to show compassion, but he was still at a loss for words to describe the anguish that Dunn must be feeling.

“If you asked him now, he would probably say he’d have a better shot right-handed,” Gerut said.

Throw in third baseman Brent Morel’s four walks and .272 on-base percentage in 88 games and the recent loss of catcher A.J. Pierzynski to a fractured wrist, and the White Sox are one offensively challenged bunch. They’ve scored 488 runs this season, fewer than Cleveland and Baltimore. They rank 12th among the 14 American League teams with 60 stolen bases, and dead last with a 61 percent success rate. And they’re 11th with a .242 batting average with runners in scoring position.

The White Sox have won nine of their past 12 games, but it’s been a generally buzz-free ride. After dropping six straight to Boston and New York, the Sox climbed back into the race while beating up on Minnesota, Baltimore and Kansas City. Maybe that’s enough to quicken the pulse of the diehards -- and Hawk Harrelson -- but the Sox rank 19th in the majors in attendance, so they haven’t exactly captured the imagination of a city. Your average Chicagoan is more consumed by Jay Cutler’s training camp and Ryan Dempster’s true feelings about a return to action by Carlos Zambrano.

The White Sox’s staff ace couldn’t do much to change that Wednesday. Cleveland manager Manny Acta started five lefty hitters against the left-handed Buehrle, and the lineup configuration paid off. Buehrle’s stuff was up in the zone for much of the evening, and the Indians routinely took him up the middle or the opposite way for base hits.

Carmona, meanwhile, came within two outs of his first complete game this season and pulled the Tribe within two games of first-place Detroit. These Indians have their flaws, but they’re feisty to the point of Eckstein-ian.

So where is the American League Central race headed? It’s the only three-team scrum remaining in all of baseball, but it remains compelling for all the wrong reasons: The Indians, with 511 runs scored and 507 allowed, are the only team in the division with a positive run differential.

As Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune recently pointed out, it might be time for manager Ozzie Guillen to find a way to cram a little more Buehrle into the equation. The White Sox are 16-8 in Buehrle’s starts and 45-53 behind the rest of their rotation. If Guillen can squeeze an extra start or two from Buehrle by pitching him every fifth day, rather than every five or even six games, it might be worth considering.

But if the Sox can’t figure out a way to score more runs, rotational machinations are the least of their concerns. Winning the AL Central is going to be like toting a piano to the top of the Sears Tower.