One team usually emerges ascendant from the interleague series between the White Sox and the Cubs, the other on the decline. But their first meeting this season, at Comiskey Park, produced a split decision, the Sox winning two of the three games but each team laying bare the other’s weaknesses. Far from diminishing the baseball season, this outcome made it more dramatic.

The Cubs, remember, came out of the series in first place in the National League Central Division, five games ahead of the Saint Louis Cardinals. Yet their lack of team speed had been glaring against the White Sox. With third baseman Bill Mueller out until August with a cracked kneecap, they were sometimes forced to play their 16-inch-softball sluggers, Matt Stairs and Ron Coomer, at the corners, which meant two big, slow guys clogging up the base paths when they were getting on base at all. After Sammy Sosa the team had no real punch in its lineup except for Rondell White, who was soon to prove himself the one hitter aside from Sosa that the team couldn’t afford to lose. Leadoff man Eric Young continued to struggle with the new enlarged strike zone, and center field remained such a problem that Roosevelt Brown was recalled from Triple A to spot Gary Matthews Jr.

After losing the Comiskey Park series to the Sox, the Cubs soldiered on to Arizona to play the Diamondbacks, whose top pitchers, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, were ready and waiting. But Kerry Wood outdueled Schilling in the series opener. Wood is his team’s essential element in its bid to establish itself as a true contender, and five days later he completed the Cubs’ three-game home sweep of the Minnesota Twins–thus helping the Sox gain on the Twins in the American League Central. After Wood the starting rotation began to show some tatters. Kevin Tapani, who lost the second game in Arizona, would lose the critical opening game of the next series in Saint Louis, the middle game of a three-game home sweep at the hands of the onrushing Milwaukee Brewers, and the opening game of last weekend’s four-game series with the Cincinnati Reds. The key victory in that stretch was the Cubs’ third game in Saint Louis after they’d lost the first two–making it 13 defeats in a row at Busch Stadium. Sosa blasted two home runs and snuffed out a rally with a great catch to preserve a 9-4 win. If the Cubs had lost the Cards would have been three games out; as it was, the Cubs won again the next day and left town six ahead.

But after the Brewers’ sweep the lead was back down to four, with not just the Cardinals but also the Brew Crew and the resurgent Houston Astros closing in as the hated New York Mets came to town for their only series of the season at Wrigley Field. (The Cubs-Mets rivalry is a victim of baseball’s new unbalanced schedule that favors intradivision play.) Julian Tavarez, who had ended small skids with wins over the Twins and the Cards, was on the mound, having promised his team the night before he’d end this three-game losing streak too, and he looked great, his fastball and sinker both working well. But he was up against Al Leiter, New York’s ace and former playoff hero. Leiter got into trouble right away and worked out of it with the help of the Cubs. He opened by striking out Young on a wicked pitch that got past catcher Todd Pratt (sitting in for Mike Piazza, who evidently had to take the night off waiting for his newly dyed blond hair to set), putting Young on base. Miguel Cairo–latest in a long line of Cubs supersubs going back to Dave Owen and Paul Popovich–bunted and Leiter muffed the ball. With runners at the corners and no outs, Sosa fanned, and Coomer grounded into a slow-motion around-the-horn double play. The grandstand shadow goes from home to first faster than Coomer does.

After squandering their first-inning opportunity, the Cubs got an unexpected run out of the bottom of the lineup in the third. Journeyman catcher Robert Machado, who’d been called up to replace the injured Todd Hundley, smacked a 1-2 pitch into the left-field gap for a leadoff double. He went to third on a wild pitch–Leiter struggled all night with his split-fingered fastball–and the unlikely Tavarez, entering the game hitting an even .100 but looking every inch like Rod Carew, slapped an 0-2 pitch past a visibly irritated Leiter into center field to score the first run of the game.

That looked to be enough until Tavarez left a high fastball out over the plate for Todd Zeile, who led off the seventh by pumping it into the left-field bleachers like a guy firing a shotgun. Machado responded in kind on Leiter’s first pitch in the bottom of the seventh, hitting a cut fastball barely into the tree boughs in the center-field hitting background. Bull pen flamethrowers Kyle Farnsworth and Tom Gordon pitched the eighth and ninth to seal the 2-1 victory.

“Finally I got to see that cutter and he lay one in the middle,” Machado said after the game, then departed the Cubs’ tiny interview room with a goofy grin and an oddball wave to reporters.

The Cubs won the next day too, and with Wood on the mound for the closer looked en route to another series sweep. But Wood weakened too early on a sultry afternoon to get the game to Farnsworth, and middle reliever Courtney Duncan gave up the lead as the Cubs lost. Tapani lost again last Thursday in the series opener against Cincinnati. Jason Bere threw a rare complete-game victory Friday, but the next day Tavarez was pounded, throwing too many pitches like that high fastball to Zeile. The Cubs split the series with a 2-1 win Sunday behind Jon Lieber, leaving them four and a half games up on the Astros. By this time the Cubs had called up phenom Corey Patterson to provide much-needed help. White went down with a pulled groin muscle in the opener against the Mets, and the Cubs’ offensive struggles afterward were no coincidence.

General manager Andy MacPhail seems intent on not dealing away the Cubs’ young talent for short-term gains, the way Ed Lynch did in 1998. No matter how weak and slow the lineup might be today, I think that’s the correct decision. The Cubs have enough talent in Triple A to compete for the next five or ten years, not just this year. Besides, if they pulled off a couple of rent-a-free-agent deals to become the half-season powerhouse of the NL Central, they’d be a lot less fun to watch than they are today, struggling to hang on with what they have.

What’s been similarly appealing about the Sox this season, as they’ve battled back from the nadir of a 14-29 start that put them 15 and a half games behind the division-leading Twins, is that they’ve done it while understrength. The Sox turned it around before meeting the Cubs, and after almost sweeping the city series went on to sweep the Reds. The steamroller stopped when they were swept by the Cards–three losses as delightful as there could be for south-side fans, because they hurt the Cubs–but the Sox recovered to win six of the next seven and get to the .500 mark at 36-36, going 22-7 for the month.

The Sox, the fearsome fence-pounding, no-pitching league leaders of the previous season, overcame their awful start with young pitching, improved defense (even light-hitting shortstop Royce Clayton began to win over the fans), and the new run-and-bunt offense preferred by manager Jerry Manuel. He shuffled the batting order to move Ray Durham down to third and Jose Valentin into the leadoff spot, with Chris Singleton hitting second and sometimes bunting as early as the first inning if Valentin led off with a hit or a walk. “What I like to do is put a run on the board early and then add to it,” Manuel said last week as the Sox returned home, sounding like the Cubs’ Don Baylor. (Maybe there was some exchange of personalities in that city series.) The Sox were getting great pitching from Kip Wells, from Jon Garland in the bull pen, and especially from starter Mark Buehrle, who epitomized the team’s turnaround by going from 1-3 in late May to 6-3 a month later, with a string of more than 24 straight shutout innings.

After the terrible start, the team’s goal had been to reach .500 before the All-Star break–a seemingly impossible task–and when they got there ahead of schedule they seemed at a loss about how to proceed. It just so happened that their very next series was against the upstart Twins, who’d usurped their position as the surprise team of the American League. A sweep of the Twins might have sent the Sox on their way. But Keith Foulke, the usually reliable bull-pen closer, blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning of the first game, handing the Twins a 7-6 win that pushed the Sox back below .500. It was a crushing defeat. The Sox looked flat the next night, losing behind Kip Wells, and though they salvaged the series finale when, just as in the Cubs series, Sean Lowe came on in relief of the ailing David Wells and stopped the opponent completely, they came home last Friday a game under .500, eight out of first, and with general manager Kenny Williams making threatening remarks about how if they didn’t establish themselves as legitimate playoff contenders with at least a 7-3 home stand he might have to go in the other direction with a series of “white flag” deals like the ones his predecessor Ron Schueler pulled off in 1997.

It was probably the wrong time to put more pressure on players who’d come so far just to regain respectability. With almost 28,000 out at Comiskey Friday to pay their last respects to Cal Ripken, Buehrle lacked his usual impeccable control, walking a man for the first time in 30 innings and being bled for a run three times in seven innings. The Sox’ offense looked flat. The Baltimore Orioles’ starter, phenom Josh Towers, displayed pinpoint control and didn’t give up a run. Manuel denied the Sox were emotionally deflated after Minnesota, saying, “When you get a guy who pitches like that against you, it seems that way,” and the Sox did win the next night behind the resurgent James Baldwin. But they looked flat again in front of almost 35,000 Sunday for Ripken’s Chicago swan song, and starter Rocky Biddle got pounded. That left the Sox ten games behind the recharged Twins, seven behind the Cleveland Indians, and two games under .500 at 38-40 with the Twins coming to town.

The Sox looked like a team desperate to reach the All-Star break still respectable, the Cubs like a team desperate to hang on to their lead. The last time they met, the Sox had more at stake. Next Thursday the stakes are equal as the Cubs and Sox come off the break to open a series at Wrigley Field, each looking for momentum that could define the rest of the season. The baseball in this series could be even more dramatic than it was in the first one.