Even in the throes of a 1-5 road trip and six straight losses at Comerica Park, the White Sox (72-60) still stand one game ahead of the Tigers (71-61) in the division. A win Sunday night behind staff ace Chris Sale, albeit facing the extraordinarily tough challenge of Justin Verlander across the way, would leave the White Sox just one-half game worse than when they left on this two-city excursion last Sunday.
As for a loss? Teams could be in worse places than tied atop the AL Central with 29 games remaining.
"You're still where you want to be," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura of his suddenly sliding division leader. "So there's no need hanging your head because there are a lot other places you can be right now. You can be 15-20 games back, and no one is going to feel sorry for you."
"Our team has been dialed in the past two days, maybe too dialed in," White Sox captain Paul Konerko said. "Definitely not a passive, scared approach. Very aggressive and on the attack, just beaten. So you just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, get back out there tomorrow ... and see what happens."
All the White Sox can hope is that Verlander won't be as tough as Scherzer (15-6) was Saturday.
In picking up his fifth straight win and tying a single-season career high for victories, the right-hander scattered four hits over eight innings. Scherzer, who has not recorded fewer than eight strikeouts since July 14 against Baltimore, fanned nine and walked only one.
Dewayne Wise provided most of the offensive firepower against Scherzer with a leadoff single in the first, a leadoff single in the sixth and a two-out walk in the third. None of those efforts amounted to runs. A.J. Pierzynski's long fly out to center fielder Austin Jackson in the first was about as close as the White Sox came, until Orlando Hudson's two-out triple off Detroit closer Jose Valverde scored Konerko in the ninth.
That Hudson hit was the club's first successful opportunity in 20 chances with runners in scoring position during the first two games of this series. On Saturday, the White Sox offensive shortcomings were directly tied to Scherzer's excellence.
"That's as good of a performance we've had thrown against us, just stuff-wise and I'm watching from the side," Ventura said. "But watching what he's doing, it looks like the ball is moving. To me, he looked like he was inside, outside, spotting them and up and down. It wasn't just one pitch he was throwing. He was on with everything."
"His fastball and slider, it's like facing a top-notch closer or setup guy the whole night," said Konerko of Scherzer, who hit 98 mph while striking out Wise in the eighth. "I didn't feel great off him but if I did it might have just prolonged it a pitch or two. When he's locked in, he's a handful."
For all of Scherzer's pinpoint control, White Sox starter Francisco Liriano (5-11) was that much off his game. Liriano matched a career high by walking seven in four-plus innings, throwing 100 pitches and striking out five.
Liriano allowed two runs in the third on Jackson's leadoff walk, Brennan Boesch's triple to right-center and Miguel Cabrera's single to center. The Tigers added another run in the fifth, which began with Delmon Young's triple to left-center.
Knowing runs would be scarce, Ventura employed four pitchers to face four hitters in the fifth. Young tripled off Liriano, Jhonny Peralta grounded out to shortstop Alexei Ramirez against Brian Omogrosso and Alex Avila grounded out to Konerko against Leyson Septimo, both with the infield in. But Avisail Garcia produced his first Major League hit and RBI with a single off Nate Jones.
"We're moving in and out of there," said a smiling Ventura of his eight pitchers used. "Just getting them in there, just to see if we can do anything to shake it up."
"My last three starts [I] just have been walking a lot of guys, getting behind in the count too much and 3-2 counts almost every hitter," Liriano said. "A couple mistakes, too. I need to get better and more control and hit my spots and throw more strikes and get ahead in the count."
Young's leadoff homer against Jesse Crain in the seventh gave Detroit its fourth run and Cabrera plated another in the eighth with a single, scoring Jackson, who tripled.
This loss dropped the White Sox to 1-11 in their last 12 at Comerica and 3-17 over their last 20 in Detroit. It's now on the slight but sturdy shoulders of Sale to send the White Sox home holding the division lead, prepared for a final-month battle.
"Because of the situation we were in, it's a little bigger series, but it's not the end of the world one way or the other," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "If we had lost these first two, it would've been pretty helter-skelter for tomorrow, but we didn't. We'll just see how it plays out. It should be a real good matchup for tomorrow."