MINNEAPOLIS -- Through the course of this first-place 2012 season to date, the White Sox have endured prolonged hitting slumps and struggles from their pitching staff.
Monday's 7-6 loss to the Twins before 35,018 at a raucous Target Field seems to indicate that one of the best defensive squads in all of baseball currently finds itself battling a fielding funk.
Three errors, including a crucial throwing miscue from catcher A.J. Pierzynski in the bottom of the ninth inning, contributed to three unearned runs and a second straight defeat for the White Sox (55-47). This effort in the field followed a shaky defensive night Sunday in Arlington for a team that has allowed a Major League-low 20 unearned runs.
Manager Robin Ventura acknowledged a team could go into a collective defensive malaise, but fixing the slump was more his focus.
"That's something we have to clean it up and focus on it and make sure we're better at it because we're giving away a lot of runs," Ventura said. "The big ones are the unearned ones. You give them something they really shouldn't have. We've just got to get better at that."
A four-run first inning and a Twins team sitting 14 games under .500 at 44-58 as the opponent should have added up to an easy series-opening victory for the White Sox. Instead, they gave away that lead quickly and two late rallies weren't enough to avoid ninth-inning heartbreak.
Danny Valencia opened the ninth with a single to left off reliever Brett Myers (0-1). Pinch-runner Alexi Casilla was sacrificed to second by Brian Dozier, but when Pierzynski threw the bunt past first baseman Paul Konerko, the runners advanced to second and third.
Jamey Carroll followed with the walk-off sacrifice fly to right.
"With two strikes, I was just trying to put it in play," Carroll said. "With the infield in, you feel like you have a chance to put it past them, but fortunately I got enough on it to allow Alexi to score."
"On that play in the ninth inning, [Dozier] made a good bunt, I picked it up and I just made a bad throw," Pierzynski said. "It happens and it's one of those things that will eat at you, but you got to get ready for tomorrow."
Pierzynski's throw assisted the game-winning rally, but his bat propelled the visitors to an early advantage. After missing five straight games because of a mildly strained right oblique, a healthy Pierzynski roped the first pitch he saw from Cole De Vries 413 feet into the right-field stands for a three-run blast.
Pierzynski's 17th home run, which is one short of his single-season best, followed Konerko's run-scoring single.
"I dug myself into a pretty good hole there," said De Vries, who survived five innings thanks to numerous hard-hit White Sox balls finding Twins defensive players. "It was one of those games where I didn't pitch as well as I could have obviously.
"It was nice the rest of the team did what they did helping me out by getting that four right back. It helped me settle down a little bit."
Jose Quintana struggled for the third time in four starts, as the rookie left-hander allowed six runs on 10 hits over seven innings. Only four of those runs were earned, and to Quintana's credit, he settled down to hold the Twins scoreless over his final four innings.
Quintana was bailed out by Alejandro De Aza, who returned from a two-game absence because of a sprained left wrist. De Aza knocked out four hits and singled home runs in the fourth and then again in the eighth, which tied the game, following Alexei Ramirez's stolen base against reliever Jared Burton. Ramirez reached base when hit by a pitch with one out.
But Minnesota's five first-inning hits produced four runs. Ryan Doumit's single and Valencia's sacrifice fly in the third broke the tie against Quintana, who didn't strike out a batter and walked one.
These particular struggles for Quintana didn't seem to worry the pitcher or his catcher.
"The most important part is my arm, and my arm feels great," said Quintana through translator and White Sox manager of cultural relations Jackson Miranda, when asked about any issues from his rising innings total. "Today, going back to it, I made an adjustment and from now on I'll look into doing that."
"He was just up early," said Pierzynski of Quintana. "As the game went on, he got better. We talked to him about getting ground balls. He started getting the ball down. He settled down and gave us seven solid innings. That was it. Just missed spots early, ball was up and they hit them."
Exactly 60 games remain on the schedule for the White Sox. Their 1 1/2-game lead in the American League Central over the Tigers, who lost by a 7-3 margin at Boston on Monday, will be tested through what feels like playoff baseball on a nightly basis.
To survive that extended test, the White Sox need to find the airtight defense that defined them for much of the season.
"You know that teams in our division are coming after it," Pierzynski said. "We've been playing well and tonight was hopefully a blip on the radar. We made some mistakes and obviously the one in the ninth is the big one I made, but things happen and I'm proud of the way we came back after giving up the lead."