CHICAGO -- There's a lot of work to be done, and the White Sox know it. But they have gained ground on the American League Central behemoth that resides in Detroit, both in the present and seemingly the future tenses, and it showed Monday night.
In the opener of a four-game series, cleanup hitter Jose Abreu and leadoff man Adam Eaton demonstrated for the Tigers how they've revitalized a team that lost 99 games a year ago. Abreu's two-run blast into the left-field bleachers helped offset home runs by Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and shortstop newcomer Eugenio Suarez to help the White Sox to a 6-5 victory.
This may not seem like a big deal for a team that has been teeter-tottering along around .500, but a few more nights like this one will raise further questions about the Tigers, the three-time defending AL Central champs who have lost 15 of 21 games since getting off to a 27-12 start.
While the Tigers could go wire-to-wire in the Central, they don't seem as difficult to take down as they did when they went to Florida in February. And, certainly, the White Sox don't seem as far away as they did on that day last October when they signed Abreu, who could turn into the best slugger ever from Cuba.
Abreu's homer was his 18th in 199 at-bats, and third in seven games since he spent time on the disabled list due to pain in his left ankle. He gives the Sox a slugger to support Chris Sale (the AL's most upwardly mobile pitcher), as Cabrera has backed Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. And the Sox believe they landed a No. 2 starter for the not-so-distant future with their first pick (third overall) in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, Carlos Rodon.
Before Monday's game, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said he believes the 2014 Draft could go a long way in addressing the organization's need for pitching. Oregon State left-hander Jace Fry, taken in the third round, has the talent that scouts look for, and second-round pick Spencer Adams, a right-hander from Georgia's rich high school ranks, looks like a future stud.
"Taking Carlos in the first round, we get a high-ceiling, close-to-the-Majors, potential front-end piece to fit in with this rebuilding plan that we have going on now," Hahn said. "But behind him, in being able to get Spencer Adams in the second round -- a high-ceiling high school kid who a lot of people thought would be gone in the first round -- was a nice followup. The kid, Fry, we took in the third, was the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year and is a polished left-handed starter who potentially could come quick as well."
More pitching can't get to U.S. Cellular Field quickly enough.
Since adding Abreu and Eaton, the White Sox feature a dangerous lineup. But they've given up the second-most runs in the AL, with the back end of the rotation, the bullpen and defense all areas that manager Robin Ventura acknowledges need work.
"We're not good enough," Ventura said. "We've got to get better. That's all there is to it."
But the White Sox are getting their edge back. Part of the credit for that goes to Eaton, who was acquired by the White Sox from the D-backs after the 2013 season.
Eaton has been bothered by some nagging injuries. But when he's confident in his legs, he can be a force. Eaton led off Monday's game with an opposite-field triple that scooted by J.D. Martinez, and he later drove in a run with a single grounded past third base. He also made the defensive play of the night, sprinting to the warning track in center field to grab a drive by Victor Martinez just before banging into the fence.
This was a badly needed victory for the White Sox, who were swept in Anaheim -- the telling moment coming when Mike Trout blasted a game-tying grand slam off Sale in the eighth inning on Saturday. And it will not help the Tigers erase the memory of Sunday night's ninth-inning reversal, when the Red Sox pounded Joba Chamberlain to deny them a sweep.
This was the first of 14 consecutive games the Tigers will play against AL Central opponents. Detroit manager Brad Ausmus knows it is an important stretch.
"Well, anytime you play your division, it's important," Ausmus said. "Those games have a little bit more meaning. Teams that play well within their division usually do well in the division."
Ausmus was happy to have Cabrera in his lineup Monday, even if he had to go as the designated hitter. He had left Sunday's game with a tight left hamstring.
The same cannot be said about the Tigers' troubles closing out games. Nathan, imported from Texas with expectations that he would address a recurring weakness, has converted only 13 of 17 saves.
But Ausmus had Nathan warming up in the ninth inning Monday. He would have been looked to for the save had Ronald Belisario not shut down a rally that began with doubles by Austin Jackson and Alex Avila.
Ausmus insisted that he hasn't seriously considered any long-term alternatives to the 39-year-old Nathan, who has a 1.565 WHIP and a 7.04 ERA.
"I'm not really thinking that far ahead," Ausmus said. "Right now, Joe is and has been the closer the whole year. The only times he hasn't closed have been games that I've felt it was best to give him a rest. If there's a bridge that needs to be crossed sometime down the road, I'll cross it. Right now, I'm not even considering it."
Few were considering the White Sox as contenders when the season began. They still need to improve to become one, but signs are pointing in the right direction.