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AL Central is tight, but skidding White Sox must address ills

The American League Central is baseball’s most tightly contested division and could remain that way until September. When the margin is so narrow, any aspect of the game could decide who goes to the playoffs.

Hitting likely won’t decide the division champ because all AL teams are designed to hit sooner or later.

That leaves pitching and defense.

And that spells trouble for the White Sox.

Starting pitching remains a question mark, with ace Chris Sale the closest thing to a certainty each time he takes the mound.

John Danks has improved in his last three starts (2-1, 2.11 ERA), but Jose Quintana, Hector Noesi and Andre Rienzo have yet to show consistency.

Pitching is a question mark for three of the Sox’ division rivals, too, but it’s one of the areas where the improved Royals are separating themselves.

The Royals rank third in the league in pitching overall, far ahead of the Tigers (10th), Indians (12th), Sox (13th) and Twins (15th).

The Sox’ other lingering concern is defense, the part of the game that doomed them last year and threatens to do the same in 2014.

The Sox were next-to-last in the majors in fielding last season, and they’re no better this year. Only Cleveland sits below the Sox, a reason why Indians pitching has given up 45 unearned runs — most in the division.

But the Sox are next with 33 unearned runs allowed, compared to only 22 by the Tigers, 20 by the Royals and 17 by the Twins.

The Twins are last in the league in pitching, but they’re fifth in defense, which could be why they remain competitive in the Central.

Manager Robin Ventura knows it’s important to stay within striking distance of the top. But his team fell to a season-low four games below .500 (33-37) Sunday after getting swept by the Royals, the team that has Detroit looking over its shoulder now.

‘‘The good news is we had opportunities,’’ Ventura said of the Sox’ 12 hits in the 6-3 loss.

The bad news was 13 stranded runners and a combined 3-for-29 effort (.103) with runners in scoring position in the three-game series.

‘‘We’re scuffling a little bit, and that’s part of the game,’’ said Gordon Beckham, who went 1-for-5. ‘‘I don’t think it’s a lack of effort. Sometimes baseball goes in this up-and-down cycle.

‘‘I’m not worried about the team. I just think we have to get a little bit better in terms of pitching and hitting.’’

And defense.

Ventura admits defense can be one of the most difficult parts of the game to fix.

‘‘There are times it can mentally be a block,’’ the former Gold Glove third baseman said. ‘‘Last year, I thought we were that way. Everybody wasn’t trying to make a play — they were trying not to make a mistake.

‘‘You have to separate that and let them have a feeling that they can make this play instead of screwing up. It’s a balancing act.

‘‘There are parts of it that will be a challenge [to correct]. If you’re already at this point, and you’re already talking about it and thinking about it, [the concern] is there.

‘‘It’s not a secret that if we don’t play good defense, we don’t have a chance to win.

‘‘We’re not hiding from it, so it needs to be better.

‘‘You just continue to work at it. You’re not pleased with it, but you continue to work at it and emphasize it. We continue to work on it and preach it. That’s how you help it get better — you work on it.’’

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