White Sox riding quality pitching

I'll understand if you want to rush to another place on this Web site to confirm this with your own eyes, but ...

The White Sox just might win the American League Central this season because of their pitching staff.

It might not be a huge surprise that no team in the AL has allowed fewer runs than the Sox, but it is somewhat stunning that the one doing it is the White Sox, not the Red Sox.

Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling at the front of the rotation? Keith Foulke and a cast of veterans in the bullpen?

No, we're talking about Esteban Loaiza and Mark Buehrle at the front of the rotation and Billy Koch, Shingo Takatsu, Mike Jackson, Jon Adkins and Neal Cotts, among others, in the bullpen.

You could have gotten good odds on that one.

Through 54 games, the first-place White Sox had allowed 231 runs -- a pace that would yield 693 over the course of the season. The last time they allowed less than 700 was in 1993, when their starting rotation included Jack McDowell and the brash trio of Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez and Jason Bere.

Few expected the Sox's pitching staff to improve this year, not after losing Bartolo Colon, Tom Gordon and Scott Sullivan to free agency. But they have thus far, cutting the staff ERA from 4.17 to 4.02, which ranks third in the AL, behind only Boston and Oakland.

This must be a shock to the collective Minnesota system. The Twins won AL Central titles in 2002 and '03 despite being outscored by 78 runs by the Sox. The key has been their stinginess in allowing runs. But they're currently allowing about two more hits and one more run per game than the White Sox.

How are the Sox doing this?

Let us count the ways:

1) Scouts did a great job in identifying Loaiza and left-hander Scott Schoeneweis as guys who had something to offer. Loaiza is 27-12 since signing a minor-league contract. Schoeneweis, who was wasting away in the Anaheim bullpen before a 2003 trade, could easily have been non-tendered last winter but Sox general manager Ken Williams was convinced he'd contribute in 2004. He's responded with a 3.89 ERA in 11 starts, going six-plus innings nine times.

2) Don Cooper is the best pitching coach nobody knows. A long-time minor-league coach in the White Sox system, the big-league staff has been improving from the time he succeeded Nardi Contreras as pitching coach. Cooper is about as complicated as first grade math, but knows how to nurture pitchers. He might not be the perfect guy for a staff of Yankee-style show ponies, but he's a good fit for this team.

3) Ozzie Guillen is a starting pitcher's best friend. Oakland and Boston are the only teams getting more innings out of their starters -- a remarkable stat considering the ongoing void in the White Sox's fifth-starter spot (3-18 with a 7.43 ERA in 35 starts during the last two years). Buehrle, Loaiza and Jon Garland are all among the top 15 in the league in innings pitched. The 24-year-old Garland is averaging seven innings per start -- one more than he had did under Jerry Manuel the last two years. He's repaid Guillen's faith with a 3.79 ERA, realizing the potential that made him a first-round draft pick of the Cubs.

4) Takatsu, the all-time saves leader in Japan, has joined Marte to stabilize a bullpen where -- at least for the time being -- all roads continue to lead to Billy Koch. Not since Doug Jones has anyone gotten more outs throwing the ball slower than Takatsu. His sidearm sinkers prove gravity time and time again. It's possible that the AL hitters will adjust to him, but even if they do he could wind up with a 2.00 ERA. In Marte (1-2, 2.82), Takatsu (3-0, 1.27) and Koch, Guillen has late-inning options.

5) Buehrle is back. As consistent as he's been, it's still shocking that this guy lost nine games in a row in 2003. Take that period of time away, and Buehrle's career won-lost record is 58-25. That includes a 5-1 mark this year. He's a throwback who makes quality pitching look almost effortless. He works fast and throws strikes.

The White Sox's pleasant surprises haven't been limited to the pitching staff.

Juan Uribe has paid huge dividends after an offseason trade that sent second baseman Aaron Miles to Colorado. A recent slump has dropped Uribe's batting average to .309, but he's on pace to score 104 runs, second on the team to Frank Thomas. He also joins Willie Harris and catcher Miguel Olivo to give Guillen a few baserunners he can put into motion.

Harris, who entered the season as a .213 hitter in 137 games, has received an infusion of confidence from Guillen and hitting coach Greg Walker, who had worked with him at Triple-A Charlotte. He's hitting .319 with a .379 on-base percentage, good enough to make him a presence high in the batting order.

Since abandoning switch-hitting, Jose Valentin is hitting better than .258 for the first time since 2000, when he had a career year (.273-25-92).

These aren't exactly the kind of changes that qualify as Vlad Guerrero-sized differences. But with Magglio Ordonez expected to be out for another month, the White Sox need other hitters to step forward.

The pitching staff is doing its job.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.