Since interleague play began in 1997, strength has passed back and forth between the White Sox and Cubs as if it were a quantity one could steal from the other, like a sacred talisman or a goose that laid golden eggs. That phenomenon appeared to extend to this season, albeit in a reversed form. The Cubs emerged spent from their sweep of the Sox at Wrigley Field and immediately lost five straight on the road, the last two of them critical games against the Cardinals in Saint Louis. The Sox, meanwhile, lost their next two to the Anaheim Angels but then reeled off four straight wins at home to reclaim first place in the American League Central Division at the All-Star break. After the break they embarked on a pivotal stretch of the season, playing 15 of 21 games on the road. The Sox stumbled along, but benefiting from the lack of a team as strong as the Cardinals in their division climbed back into first with four straight wins, the last two at White Sox Park against Detroit. When they lost the series finale to the Tigers they fell to second, but were in position to snatch the lead right back. The first-place Minnesota Twins were coming to town a week ago Monday for a three-game set that figured to go far toward determining the division champion.

Only then did the Sox suffer the same sort of collapse that had afflicted the Cubs. The Twins swept the three games, outplaying the Sox in every aspect of baseball–not just pitching, hitting, and defense but the mental, the emotional, and above all the physical. Torii Hunter set the tone in the opening game by going ever so slightly out of his way to flatten Sox catcher Jamie Burke in a play at the plate, and the Twins never looked back, leaving the Sox to quiver like fresh roadkill. When you consider that the Sox had their three best pitchers lined up for the series–Mark Buehrle, newly acquired Freddy Garcia, and last year’s ace Esteban Loaiza in what turned out to be his south-side swan song–and that the first two games took place in front of rare sold-out crowds at Sox Park, the series couldn’t have gone worse.

Buehrle has reemerged from his struggles early last season as the team’s most reliable pitcher, but he picked a bad night not to have his stuff. He gave up a run in the first inning of the series opener, another in the second, and two more in the fourth on a homer by weak-hitting backup catcher Henry Blanco. While the Twins slapped Buehrle around with 12 hits in seven innings, the Sox could only respond against Minnesota starter Brad Radke with one big shot, a solo homer by Paul Konerko in the second. If the spirits of the 38,362 fans weren’t dampened enough, rain began to fall, and in the eighth the Twins scored two more, the first when Hunter blasted through Burke, who was stationed in front of the plate but moving back slightly to catch Timo Perez’s throw from the outfield.

Manager Ozzie Guillen tried to inspire his team by being totally unsympathetic after the 6-2 loss. “That’s a message,” he said about the play at the plate. “If that happened on my side, I’d be high-fiving my players.” But the Sox looked not just flattened but flat the following night. Garcia, the team’s new stud starter obtained at a very dear cost (a subject I’ll return to later), was an imposing presence walking in from the bullpen. Hat off, a towel draped around his neck, he looked like the baseball equivalent of the Rock. He doesn’t have a traditional power pitcher’s body–strong legs and heavy backside. Instead he’s tall, erect, and broad-shouldered, and he’s got a deliberate, mechanical motion on the mound–a simple kick followed by an arm rising up behind him and catapulting the ball toward home plate. This delivery gives him not just a fastball in the mid-90s but also a lot of torque on his slider, which he altered on this night from a hard, late-breaking swoop to a slightly softer toss that dropped straight down. He kept the Twins scoreless on one hit through four innings; unfortunately, his counterpart, Johan Santana, was blanking the Sox. A smaller, slighter, left-handed pitcher with a nice little bent-leg kick, Santana leaned back and threw the ball straight over the top. He had a fastball and a slider and also a nasty split-fingered fastball.

The most discouraging thing about this series so far as the Sox were concerned was that it displayed the ultimate justice of baseball. In a series between two evenly matched teams the little things matter, and the little things all went the Twins’ way, largely through their own doing, though the Sox’ ineptness and lapses played a part. Garcia plunked Corey Koskie to lead off the fifth, and he stole second when Matt LeCroy whiffed on a hit-and-run and Sox catcher Ben Davis dropped the ball. Garcia got LeCroy to ground to third, freezing Koskie, and was set to get out of it when he coaxed Luis Rivas to fly to left. But then leadoff man Shannon Stewart pounded a fastball down the left-field line for a double, scoring Koskie; Christian Guzman smacked a fastball into right center for another double, scoring Stewart; and Lew Ford slapped a slider into left field for a single, scoring Guzman. Hunter led off the sixth with a hard-hit double that ricocheted off Joe Crede at third and bounced into the stands, went to third on a grounder to second, and came home on a sacrifice fly by LeCroy–a textbook manufactured run. Hunter was booed every time he came to the plate or touched the ball in the field; unfortunately, it took until the bottom of the sixth for the Sox to manage even a fly to center.

In the ninth, Sox reliever Damaso Marte walked the leadoff man, and then fate conspired against him. Guzman pushed a sacrifice bunt just off to the side of the charging Marte for a single. Ford bounced one off home plate, and when the ball finally came down all Crede could do was eat it. Marte threw a wild pitch over Davis’s mitt to score a run and move everyone else up, and Justin Morneau slapped a single to center to score Guzman. Ford came home on a sacrifice fly off Mike Jackson, who’d relieved Marte, and the Twins won going away, 7-3. The Sox runs came on two solo homers by Carlos Lee and another by Carl Everett, the last two in the ninth inning, when the game was all but over. The fireworks provided small solace to the few Sox fans who remained.

“They executed everything,” Guillen said afterward. “We didn’t have the chance to do anything.” Good pitching will make any team look flat, and Santana has become a very good pitcher, but Guillen wasn’t conceding anything. “Right now is dog days,” he added, “and we’re gonna see who has the biggest dog.”

That was the Twins, to no one’s great surprise. They scored two early runs off Loaiza, but the Sox scrambled back to tie the game in the third. The Twins pushed two more across in the middle innings, but the Sox clawed back with runs in the fifth and seventh. The Sox should have gone ahead in the seventh, when the first six batters reached base; they scored only once because Jose Valentin was picked off second base and Juan Uribe was thrown out stealing. With the game tied, the Sox finally had a chance to deploy Mr. Zero, new closer Shingo Takatsu–who came on with a gong in the ninth. In the bottom half the Sox had runners at the corners with one out and a chance to win with a fly ball. But Joe Borchard grounded the first pitch into an inning-ending double play. Takatsu walked the leadoff man in the tenth, but it looked like he’d worked out of it even after a sacrifice, an intentional walk, and a groundout put runners on second and third. However Valentin just plain dropped Jacque Jones’s foul pop-up after a long run down the left-field line, and two pitches after that error Jones singled to left to score the go-ahead run. The Sox went timidly in the bottom of the tenth.

They looked like a beaten bunch, and when they traveled to Detroit the ground all but opened up and swallowed them whole. Fourth starter Jon Garland gave up two runs in the first Friday and another two in the sixth after the Sox had rallied to tie the game. The Sox tied it again in the eighth, but Marte walked in what proved to be the winning run in the bottom half for a 5-4 Detroit triumph. The next night Cliff Politte walked in the winning run in the tenth inning. The Sox salvaged Sunday’s series finale 6-4 to halt their skid at seven games, but they were now a season-high five games behind the Twins.

Thus far I have studiously resisted the idea that the Sox could plead injuries. It’s true that they were missing their two best sluggers, Magglio Ordonez and Frank Thomas, for much of this critical stretch. But as Ordonez was out for a month and Thomas until mid-September–both optimistic estimates–the Sox had to learn how to win without them, and the series with the Twins pointed out that they weren’t likely to learn small ball, manufacturing runs. General manager Kenny Williams did what he could to fill the team’s holes, bringing in Garcia, Everett, and, just before last weekend’s trading deadline, Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras, but paid a high price. For Garcia, the Sox gave up catcher Miguel Olivo and minor-league phenom Jeremy Reed to the Seattle Mariners. The Sox soon signed Garcia to a contract extension, but if Olivo and Reed turn into all-stars–and I’m not alone in expecting they will–it will be a bad deal. Everett came from the Montreal Expos for 6-11 starter Jon Rauch, who had made a turbulent transition to the big leagues but pitched extremely well in his last cup of coffee with the Sox. Contreras came from the New York Yankees for Loaiza, a gamble by Williams. After winning a team-high 21 games last year, Loaiza appeared to be backsliding toward journeyman status this summer. Contreras, meanwhile, is a large-limbed power pitcher with considerable promise, but he’d accomplished little in the New York City pressure cooker.

If it wasn’t a white-flag trade signaling surrender, it was made with an eye toward the future: Contreras is signed through 2006, while Loaiza is set to become a free agent this fall. What became noticeable during the series with the Twins is that the Sox have put together a roster of big guys who look good in a uniform but who have yet to fulfill their promise–players like Borchard, Davis, and now Contreras, and to a lesser extent Garcia, who has enjoyed success in the majors (as in beating the Sox in the 2000 playoffs). Funny, but Williams himself was a guy who looked good in a uniform but never quite put it together as a player. After the Twins sweep, a Sox fan could only hope Williams wasn’t recasting his team in his own image. He and Guillen might need to be reminded of the sports cliche that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog that matters.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frank Polich/Reuters/Corbis.