DETROIT -- The White Sox hold the top spot in the American League Central.
They have been in that position for 53 days during the 2012 season and fully expect to be atop that lofty perch when the regular season concludes on the third day of October.
But Friday's 4-2 loss to the Tigers before a sold-out crowd of 44,572 at Comerica Park illustrates just how small the margin of error is for the South Siders. That tight working room becomes even more confining when going against Justin Verlander (11-5), the best pitcher in the game.
Thanks to Alejandro De Aza's two-run homer in the top of the third inning, the White Sox (50-43) actually took an early lead against Detroit (50-44). The advantage didn't last the inning, as the Tigers rallied for three runs in the bottom of the frame against White Sox ace Jake Peavy.
It was a lead basically disappearing because of a 1-0 pitch that nicked Quintin Berry with Jhonny Peralta on third and two outs, setting the table for Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Delmon Young. Cabrera drove home the first run with a single to center at the end of a seven-pitch at-bat, and Fielder tied the game with a single off the end of the bat through an infield shift at the end of a six-pitch at-bat.
Young put the Tigers ahead with a double to left. Peavy (7-7) gave the Tigers a small opening with the Berry mishap, and the Tigers didn't wait for an invitation to take advantage.
"Just trying to make sure it's in. Just trying to stop from giving up a run," said Peavy, giving his take on the pitch to Berry. "Obviously we'd love to have that pitch back. I just nicked him and I hate that happened."
"I kind of had a good idea that that was probably going to be all we needed to get," said Verlander of the three-run rally. "So just tried to keep the guys off the board, was able to go eight, we scratched across one more [and closer Jose] Valverde came in and did what he does."
Peavy felt as if he made a good pitch to Fielder, an 81-mph slider that Fielder rolled just to the right of second baseman Gordon Beckham. Those sorts of grounders have to find an infielder when the offense is facing a pitcher like Verlander, in Peavy's estimation. On this occasion, it did not.
Other than that shaky, 31-pitch third, Peavy was almost unhittable in the other five innings taking him through the first six. He started the night with five straight strikeouts, falling two short of the White Sox record.
Another run scored for Detroit in the seventh when Peralta singled, was balked to second, moved to third on a groundout to Beckham and came home on Austin Jackson's single to left.
In this battle of aces, Peavy fanned seven over seven innings and didn't issue a walk, throwing 122 pitches. Verlander struck out six in eight frames, throwing 121 pitches and finishing with a flourish before giving way to Valverde, who pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his 18th save.
Alexei Ramirez was called out on a 98-mph fastball on the black to open the eighth, culminating a nine-pitch at-bat. Beckham popped out to Cabrera at third on an 82 mph changeup, one pitch after having the bat sawed off at the handle on a checked swing against a 100-mph fastball.
After the standing ovation subsided for the defending AL Cy Young and Most Valuable Player, Verlander completed his first start of the season against the White Sox by getting De Aza on a grounder to first. That four-pitch sequence featured one fastball at 98 mph and another at 99.
"As far as going against [Verlander], he's got a great fastball. He has a great breaking ball," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura. "It's just one of those that we got the home run from De Aza and after that, if anybody got on, he kept them from really mounting anything against him. He's a special talent."
Losing this series opener marked the South Siders' third straight defeat and fourth in five games, dropping their record to 3-5 on this 10-game road journey to open the second half. The White Sox scored three runs or fewer for the sixth time on this trip, losing five of those games, although they haven't lost confidence in their overall ability to bounce back and produce.
"We have a pretty good offense and our pitching has been good, too," said right fielder Alex Rios, who doubled and walked against Verlander. "We're going to lose some games and we'll win some, too. It's part of the game. We're not worried about anything and let's see what happens."
What could happen Saturday is that the White Sox fall out of first place for the first time since June 23. They have one of their All-Stars, Chris Sale, on the mound, hoping to do the same to the Tigers as Verlander did to the White Sox.
With 69 games remaining, there's no need to panic. There certainly is room for concern.
"Detroit is playing well and made a nice run, but we're going to be in this thing to the finish. We'll fight tooth and nail," Peavy said. "I love pitching in games like this. It's tough when you feel you weren't quite good enough for your team to get it done."
"It's two good teams going at it," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "They're in first place. They deserve to be. They've played better than anybody in the division."