(Sports Network) - Success in games against National League teams has enabled the Chicago White Sox to vault back into contention in the American League's Central Division. The resurgent club may be facing a step up in competition, however, when the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves head to U.S. Cellular Field for a key three-game series that begins tonight.
Chicago owned a lackluster 24-33 record and was 9 1/2 games off the pace in the AL Central race on May 8, but has ripped off 10 victories in 11 outings since to close the gap in the division standings. Most of the damage has come in interleague play, where the White Sox have gone an impressive 10-2 so far this season and enter this series of back-to-back three-game sweeps of Pittsburgh and Washington to finish off a wildly successful 8-1 road trip.
The White Sox kept up their winning ways with Sunday's 6-3 decision over the Nationals, in which Paul Konerko drove in three runs to help back seven effective innings from Chicago starter Freddy Garcia.
Chicago trailed 3-1 after four innings but scored four times in the top of the fifth to move ahead. After Alex Rios' RBI double moved the White Sox within one, Konerko delivered a single to center to plate two more runners and give his team a 4-3 advantage.
Garcia (8-3) made the lead stand by holding Washington scoreless over the remainder of his stint and struck out six while walking just one to post his fifth consecutive winning start. J.J. Putz came on in the ninth and tossed a scoreless inning to notch his first save of the season.
Putz was filling in for regular closer Bobby Jenks, who was given a day of rest by manager Ozzie Guillen but is expected to be available for tonight's tilt.
Sunday's triumph brought the White Sox to .500 for the first time the team was 1-1 on April 7 and kept the Pale Hose 5 1/2 games behind Minnesota for first place in the AL Central.
"You look back where we were, this was a big step, a huge step," said Guillen of reaching the .500 mark. "I thought the way we started the season, it would be tough to climb this ladder, and all of sudden, we're here."
The Braves are on quite a roll of their own at the moment, having won five straight and seven of their last eight tests -- all against AL squads. After taking the final two matchups of a three-game set with contending Tampa Bay last week, Atlanta put up three more victories against the Kansas City Royals culminating with Sunday's 8-5 verdict from Turner Field.
Eric Hinske snapped a 5-5 deadlock with a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth inning, while Chipper Jones doubled twice and knocked in three runs to extend the Braves' lead on the second-place New York Mets in the NL East. Omar Infante contributed two hits and a pair of RBI for Atlanta, which received sensational work from its bullpen in the comeback win.
Five Braves relievers combined for seven shutout innings after struggling starter Kenshin Kawakami was reached for five runs (four earned) over the first two frames. Craig Kimbrel (2-0) picked up the win after working a scoreless top of the eighth, with Billy Wagner finishing up in the ninth for his 14th save.
"The bullpen, we went out there and battled all day," said Kimbrel. "One hitter, one inning at a time, we did a pretty good job holding them from scoring at the end of the game."
With the Mets losing to the crosstown-rival Yankees on Sunday, Atlanta now holds a 2 1/2-game advantage atop the NL East.
The Braves will attempt to keep cruising tonight behind Tommy Hanson, with the standout young hurler looking to lengthen his own personal winning streak in the opener. The right-hander is 4-0 with a splendid 2.03 earned run average over his past five starts and yielded two runs or fewer in each of those assignments.
Hanson ran his 2010 record to 7-3 with seven outstanding innings against Tampa Bay last Wednesday, limiting the Rays to three hits while striking out six. He did not get a decision in his previous start, but allowed just two runs and matched a season best with 10 strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings in a June 10 clash at Arizona.
For the season, the Braves have prevailed in 11 of Hanson's 14 starts, including his last five trips to the mound. The 23-year-old has been awfully good in interleague play as well, having won all four of his career appearances versus the AL and surrendering a mere two runs in a combined 24 innings over those games.
Chicago counters with John Danks, a pitcher who's going through a strong stretch of his own right now. After giving up just one hit over seven shutout innings to best Detroit on June 10, the left-hander held Pittsburgh to two runs on four hits through eight innings to lead the Sox to a 7-2 win over the Pirates this past Wednesday.
Danks, who had lost five times in a six-start span prior to his current streak, has registered an excellent 2.20 ERA in seven starts at hitter- friendly U.S. Cellular Field despite a so-so 3-3 record there this year. He's never previously faced the Braves, but is 4-2 with a 2.54 ERA in 11 career interleague meetings.
These teams last opposed one another back in 2004, with the White Sox taking two of three games from the Braves in Chicago.