Fortunately for the Tigers, it was the former, as Max Scherzer led them to an 8-6 victory to pull within one game of the division lead.
Now the Tigers will hand the ball to the reigning AL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander. And for the second time in less than two weeks, it will be Verlander vs. White Sox left-hander Chris Sale with a share of first place on the line.
"I don't think you get much more than a game of this magnitude at this time of year," said Verlander after the Sept. 2 outing, likely not expecting the same situation on Thursday.
The Tigers won that game, 4-2, to sweep the White Sox for the second straight series. Now, just like then, Verlander is coming off a start in which he was roughed up. He gave up six runs on nine hits and didn't reach 97 pitches for the first time in 80 starts, as Leyland elected to conserve him for the series finale.
The 23-year-old Sale isn't coming off a poor start, having contained the Royals to one run on five hits on Saturday, but being the starter in the thick of a pennant race isn't something he's used to, given this is his first season in the rotation. However, he sounded like a veteran as he downplayed Thursday's game.
"Whoever is pitching, whatever team you're pitching against, you just keep going, not really focus on who it is or all the hype behind it," Sale said. "I've still got to go out there and make pitches. He's good. They've got a good lineup, but they've been beaten."
They've been beaten 67 times this season, in fact, but not once by Sale. The left-hander has six losses, three of them to the Tigers, and the 12 earned runs they've scored off him are the most he's allowed to any team.
"I'm not going to sit here and dwell on the past and talk about 'what ifs,'" Sale said. "Got to focus on what we've got ahead of us."
And what the White Sox have ahead of them is a tall task. But with Sale being 8-0 and compiling an impressive 1.20 ERA in his last nine starts at U.S. Cellular Field, things could very well could lean in their favor. That, or the Tigers could prove they have the lefty's number.
Tigers: Boesch vs. Sale could be key
Sure, Verlander vs. Sale is the highlight of Thursday's show, but the matchup to watch is Sale against outfielder Brennan Boesch. Sale has allowed three home runs in his career to left-handed hitters, and two of them were hit by the Tigers' slugger, both of them this season.
Although Boesch has struck out five times in eight at-bats against Sale, the homers were deciding factors in Sale's past two games vs. Detroit. For that reason, Leyland, who usually stacks his lineup with right-handed hitters vs. lefties, announced earlier this week that Boesch would be in the lineup on Thursday.
"You'd like to play Boesch in this park, and he will play against Chris Sale," Leyland said on Tuesday.
The Tigers' 2013 schedule was announced on Wednesday. Detroit will begin the season in Minnesota before going home to open Comerica Park against the Yankees with a three-game set from April 5-7. They will hold Interleague series against the Braves, Phillies, Nationals, Mets, Pirates and Marlins -- the last being Miguel Cabrera's former team.
White Sox: Dunn still not ready
It appears that designated hitter Adam Dunn is not making too much progress in his recovery from a strained right oblique. He took swings on Wednesday as a test, but the injury forced him to miss his sixth straight game.
"If it happens as bad as it was ... I'm done," said Dunn, electing to take the cautious approach. "I can play, but I don't know how good I can swing. The problem is, I have to swing a 34-ounce bat, which is not that bad until you really gear up for it, and it's just not better yet."
The Sox certainly need Dunn's bat back in the lineup, but manager Robin Ventura also believes that it's better to rest the slugger, especially given Dunn's career .150 batting average against Verlander.
The White Sox begin the 2013 season by welcoming the Royals to U.S. Cellular Field on April 1. After a brief homestand, they will head out on a 10-game road trip highlighted by an early Interleague series against the Nationals. Perhaps the most intriguing matchup on the schedule comes from May 24-26, when former Sox manager Ozzie Guillen returns to Chicago with the Marlins.
The Tigers have entered each of the past three series against the White Sox behind in the standings. With a win on Thursday, Detroit will have left each of the three series with either sole possession of the division lead or a share of it.
Unless the two clubs meet in the playoffs, it will be a long time until the Tigers and White Sox square off again. The first matchup between the division rivals next season won't come until July 9-11. In fact, 16 of their 19 games will be played after the All-Star break.