In the first weeks after the all-star break, the White Sox played .500 baseball, which according to the major prognosticators was all they had to play to keep the Cleveland Indians at bay, thanks to the huge lead the Sox built up during the first half of the season. But despite winning as much as they were losing–remaining 23 games over .500 going into this week–the Sox weren’t playing on an even keel. Rather, they were listing from side to side as if tossed in a storm–their obvious flaws in pitching and defense contributing to excruciating losses. A couple of times in the last two weeks the Sox lost particularly agonizing games–the series-opening loss to the Oakland Athletics, for instance, and then the doubleheader sweep at the hands of the Seattle Mariners, with the second game turning on a crucial error by shortstop Jose Valentin–but they came back with crushing victories. The Sox seemed to maintain a placid, businesslike intensity throughout, but their fans were rocked with worry and exaltation. Like a serial killer, Sox fans were plagued by an inner anxiety and tension that could only be relieved by the occasional bludgeoning. Only after a 13-0 or 19-3 victory did everything, for the time being, seem all right.

The Sox might have saved their season with an extra-inning victory two weeks ago against the A’s. Going into a three-game set with the team that then led the wild-card race and looked to be their most likely first-round playoff opponent, the Sox had lost a three-game series to the Boston Red Sox and another to the Kansas City Royals, had split a four-game series with the Anaheim Angels, and split two games with the Texas Rangers. They still led the Indians by ten and a half games, but they didn’t exactly look like a team prepared for October baseball. Then they lost the series opener to the A’s 5-3, ruining the festive homecoming of Harold Baines, who’d been acquired from Baltimore with catcher Charles Johnson in a trade-deadline deal, and saw their lead over the charging Tribe sliced to single digits. The next night the Sox claimed an early 2-0 lead, but Jim Parque couldn’t hold it; they fell behind 3-2 and appeared to be in full fall. But Chicago came back to tie the game in the ninth inning against Oakland closer Jason Isringhausen, who balked in the tying run, and won it in the tenth on a double by Frank Thomas that scored Valentin on a thrilling head-first slide into home. The next day the Sox administered a 13-0 shellacking to the A’s, with de facto ace James Baldwin coasting to his 13th win of the season against 4 losses.

The Sox were like two teams. When one of their three veteran starting pitchers–Baldwin, Mike Sirotka, or Parque–was on the mound, the Sox played with calm confidence. In fact, they couldn’t play without confidence behind Baldwin or Parque, each of whom pitches with attitude to spare. I’ve written before about the scrappy Parque, but Baldwin also deserves some notice in this regard. Against the A’s he was as menacing as ever, his cap tugged low on his brow, and on a hot summer afternoon–a rare hot summer afternoon in this mildest of Chicago summers–he knocked the Oakland lineup down with dispatch every inning and then trudged slowly to the dugout like a highway laborer taking his work break.

But as confident as the Sox were behind their experienced pitchers, they were flighty and erratic behind the rookies who filled out the starting rotation after Cal Eldred went down with elbow problems. (And Baldwin himself can go from menacing to clawless to clueless when he doesn’t have his stuff; at these times the bill of his cap comes up, his eyes droop, and he takes on the attitude of a beaten dog.) Anyway, after Baldwin’s convincing performance against Oakland and a day off, the Sox went on to drop the twilight doubleheader to the Mariners. Rookie Jon Garland was clobbered in the opener, and when Valentin’s error cost them the nightcap the Sox saw their lead over the Indians suddenly cut to eight games. Who should emerge at this point but Thomas to restore his team’s equilibrium.

CTA problems got me to Comiskey Park a little late for the next game, which was two Wednesdays ago. I missed seeing the Big Hurt take batting practice, though I arrived in time for Baines and that familiar water-pump hitch swing of his. But on the way through the clubhouse I spotted Thomas sitting at his locker stall going through mail as soul music played loudly on the sound system. He was all alone, which is how he sometimes likes it. Thomas has taken on more leadership this season–I’ve sometimes seen the Hurt stand at the batting cage after his own cuts and watch his teammates hit, an unfamiliar sight in recent years –but he leads, now as ever, mostly by example. The example he’s set this season has been stellar. Though some critics in the media took issue with his declining a belated invitation to the all-star game, his performance during the season has been above reproach, and when the Sox staggered out of the gate in the second half it was Thomas who kept propping them up. He had homered in the first inning of that pivotal game against the A’s that he won in the tenth with his double, and the evening before he’d homered in the first inning of the nightcap of the ill-fated doubleheader against Seattle.

The Mariners had closed to within half a game of the Sox in the race for the best record in the American League, which will grant the team that earns it a first-round playoff matchup with the wild-card team, rather than, most likely, the New York Yankees. Like the Sox, Seattle had put together a fearsome lineup. Alex Rodriguez, their star shortstop, displayed a smooth efficiency that went beyond physical grace; in the field and at the plate he looked like a well-oiled machine, all mechanical torque and precision ball bearings. By contrast, the Mariners’ old thumper, Jay Buhner, still sports the menacing hillbilly goatee he’s always had, plus a stylishly shaved head to go with it, and he stood at the plate with his bat held close to his body and his head slightly tilted like an irritated mountain man waiting to bash whatever animal poked its head out of a hole in the ground.

This year Thomas has combined those two attitudes–ferocity and efficiency. And after Sirotka, acting as the stopper, had set down the Mariners in the first, getting A-Rod on a pop fly to left, Thomas came to the plate with Tony Graffanino (subbing for Valentin after his game-losing error the previous night) already at third following a walk, a steal, and a wild pitch by Seattle starter Jamie Moyer. Thomas took two quick strikes, then patiently worked the count full. Moyer threw a good pitch, a backdoor curve coming in knee high on the outside corner, but Thomas waited for it and–obviously just trying to loft a sacrifice fly–reached out and made contact. His timing was perfect, and the ball went up, up, and out beyond left field–Thomas’s 78th career first-inning homer, his tenth of the season, and his third in five games. He wasn’t through either. He came up again in the second with two runs already in and two on. This time Thomas got all of a 3-1 slider from Moyer and hit a rope into the black center-field hitting background to put the Sox up 7-0. Ray Durham would hit the third Sox homer in as many innings (by now the exploding scoreboard had nothing left but a few little pop-pop-pop bottle rockets), and Thomas came to the plate to lead off the fourth and mashed one that was caught on the center field warning track by former Sox Mike Cameron. In the fifth, Thomas drilled a curve off the left-field wall and later scored. Meanwhile, Magglio Ordoñez was following Thomas in the order with five hits and Paul Konerko following Ordoñez with four, as every Sox starting hitter but one had a multiple-hit game, the exception being Graffanino, who walked twice to score in front of Thomas’s homers and whose lone hit of the night happened to be a grand slam. By the time the game was over the score was 19-3, and the panic attack of the Sox fans filling the lower deck had been arrested. Unfortunately, the upper deck was as sparsely populated as ever, with a total attendance of less than 25,000.

The panic returned the next afternoon, when the Sox lost the third game of their four against the Mariners. Games virtually decided by the slaughter rule may ease a fan’s worries, but baseball aficionados know few games are won in such a manner in the playoffs, when pitching and defense come to the fore–in part because of the heightened quality of play, in part because of the diminished temperatures and heavier baseballs on October nights. And though the Sox rebounded to take last weekend’s series in Tampa, fans still worried and aficionados still doubted the Sox’ abilities to make the World Series. The Sox took the first two games from the Devil Rays, but Bobby Howry blew a save on Sunday, nullifying a home run by Thomas that gave him a league-leading 35 on the season and 103 RBIs to go with his .340 batting average–most-valuable-player figures with a month and a half of the season yet to play.

The Sox have a punishing offense, but they were the first big-league team to commit 100 errors this season, and not only were their “big three” starters–Baldwin, Sirotka, and Parque–not very big, they had nothing behind them but erratic rookie hurlers. Ron Schueler, the general manager who–remember?–had been brought in to take the Sox from B, where Larry Himes had left them, to C, a championship, only to return them to A and start over, now found himself stuck at B as well. He declined to make any late deals to bolster the pitching staff with a playoff-grizzled veteran, as the Yankees did by adding Denny Neagle and the pitching-rich Arizona Diamondbacks did with Curt Schilling. Instead, Schueler brought back Baines and brought in Johnson, thus violating the baseball “book” that you don’t change catchers on a pitching staff in midseason.

Yet there were good reasons to go against the book in this case. When the Florida Marlins won a world championship three years ago, Johnson was the Marlins’ catcher and Sox manager Jerry Manuel was their bench coach. So Johnson knows the pressures of playoff baseball and he knows Manuel, who almost certainly authorized the deal if he didn’t actually encourage it. Schueler, Manuel, and the rest of the Sox were clearly hoping that Johnson could help stabilize the Sox’ young pitchers. He’ll have to get to know them first, however, yet another thing for Sox fans to worry about between now and the playoffs. Thank goodness Johnson has some pop in his bat as well; the Sox are going to need to score a lot more runs to ease their fans’ anxiety, especially with their lead over the Indians down to seven and a half games.