Division play is Central to White Sox's focus

CHICAGO -- Back on the road this week, the Chicago White Sox are in for another stern test from the ferocious American League Central.

The weak link of all baseball divisions just a few years ago, the AL Central is a beast now, boasting the only two undefeated teams in baseball.

One of those teams, the Kansas City Royals, already showed the White Sox what they are all about with a season-opening sweep. The other team, the Detroit Tigers, will be waiting for the White Sox this weekend, but first will put their perfect record on the line against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Before the White Sox head to Detroit on Friday, they will have a two-game series against the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Indians, led by Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, have a dynamic young pitching staff that made them the sexy pick for the division title this year.

"There are good teams," catcher Tyler Flowers said. "The two teams we’ve seen already, Kansas City is definitely firing on all cylinders when we saw them and it sounds like they’re still doing that. And Minnesota is no slouch. That’s not an easy lineup to get through.

"So far we haven’t seen anything that is easy, and I’m sure the whole division is like that."

If the Indians are all about their pitching, the Tigers have proven to be baseball’s most dynamic offense through the first week of the season. In fact, the Tigers powered their way through a three game sweep of the Indians this past weekend.

The Tigers lead Major League Baseball in batting average (.355), on-base percentage (.433) slugging percentage (.550) and runs scored (47). And it has led them to their best start since 1985.

With off days this week on both Monday and Thursday, the White Sox could actually put their best foot forward in the Tigers series. If they elect to skip Hector Noesi's turn in the rotation, they could line up Jeff Samardzija, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana at Detroit, and none of them would be on short rest.

But first the White Sox have to focus on the Indians, who were a solid 85-77 last season, falling just short of a playoff berth. They opened 2-1 after a visit to Houston and then were swept by the Tigers in their first home series of the season.

The White Sox will tackle the short series with a pair of left-handers in Quintana and John Danks, neither of whom dominated in their first start. Danks, though, did deliver a solid opening five innings before the red-hot Royals started to break him down in the sixth.

"It’s a tough division," manager Robin Ventura said. "It’s definitely a tough division and Detroit, they have had the winning method here for a few years of winning this division. And then Cleveland has been in the playoffs, Kansas City made their run last year. You play so many games within your division, it’s tough. You have to be on your game every night. (New manager Paul Molitor) is going to do a good job over there (in Minnesota). Every night, there are no easy games within your division."

The White Sox know that the early portion of the schedule is key in order to not get buried early. They open the season with 25 of their first 28 games against division foes, a string that takes them through the first week of May.

The only non-division series in the early going will come at the end of April when the White Sox travel to Baltimore.

Even on the first day of the season, the front-loaded division schedule was being discussed. A 2-4 start has put the White Sox in a bit of an early hole, but a mini two-game win streak gives them some momentum heading into the upcoming trip.

"Everyone wants to get off to a good start, it helps reinforce the plan is being executed the way you want and justifies the beliefs in certain changes," general manager Rick Hahn said in the White Sox’s dugout before Opening Day last week. "At the same time it’s important to maintain perspective that nothing is going to be decided in the first four or six weeks

"It’s [an] important stretch given the competition, but given the parity in this division and at least my personal expectation that nobody is going to run away and hide in this division, it’s not imperative that we make a statement in the first 20 games. We’d like to and we intend to. I know the effort is going to be there, but we’ll have to assess where we are realistically after a couple of months as opposed to after a couple of weeks."