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The White Sox return to .500, so now what?

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Goodwill from 23-10 start erased by 6-19 slide, which shows no particular signs of stopping

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The last time we ended a headline with those two words, the White Sox had lost all their margin for error with first place.

After Tuesday's 10-5 loss to the Nationals, the White Sox have lost all their margin for error for a winning record.

Both of these tasks were achieved with impressive efficiency, giving you the idea that they're great at finishing what they start, at least as long as you ignore the first thing they started.

That's going to be hard. It might be Opening Day again in terms of record, and that might be the way the White Sox try reframing it. Hopefully they're free of the psychological baggage they threw on the fan base. Otherwise, it's possible the only thing the White Sox accomplished by going 23-10 will be providing the fans with the shorthand reference "23-10."

"They swept the homestand! I like the way this team looks!"
"Yeah, but remember 23-10?"

"I've never been happier, and I'm glad you were my maid of honor for it."
"Yeah, but remember 23-10?"

(When looking back at the White Sox' struggles the last several years and trying to assess a leading cause, it's increasingly easy to start with "unhealthy disdain for Brooks Boyer." Occam's razor and whatnot.)

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The White Sox were actually leading the Nationals when Yordano Ventura threw at Manny Machado in the Royals-Orioles game. I Googled the Royals to find out who they were see if I'd missed a beef from the previous night. I didn't find anything to that effect, but I did see headlines like "The Royals lose four in a row; it happens, get used to it and "World champion Royals struggling to heal wounds, resume winning ways."

Indeed, the Royals have lost six straight games, dropping all four games in Cleveland before losing the first two to Baltimore. That would be more exciting if 1) the White Sox weren't still trailing the Royals, now from fourth place, and 2) if the Royals hadn't swept the Sox before the skid despite their wounds. Granted, the latter article cites fresh lumps taken by Danny Duffy and Cheslor Cuthbert, but those aren't the players who should define the Royals' success against the Sox (and Duffy didn't, either).

Like the Rougned Odor-Jose Bautista fight, Tuesday's brawl in Baltimore featured two guys who don't have to work hard to find trouble. Ventura's list of offenses is quite a bit longer, which makes me wonder if Sal Perez was slow to corral Machado because it might be good for Ventura to suffer the consequences of his vigilante campaigns.

We've seen the Royals survive and/or thrive after Ventura's antics before, so that doesn't automatically warrant a meltdown warning. The other signs are more alarming, like losing six in a row and scoring four runs over five games.

But White Sox fans can't get a whole lot out of it, not after seeing how the Royals led the White Sox bullpen into a rakefield the weekend before last, and especially since another weekend with these same Royals follows the Washington series. If the Sox can't represent themselves better against the defending champions, then it's hard to shake the idea that the Sox are the team that heals other better than they heal themselves.

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That's where James Shields comes in. He'll make his White Sox debut against the Nationals, which is tough, and against Max Scherzer, which is tougher.

Considering the opponent on the mound, Shields may not be expected to get a win out of  Wednesday. He will be expected to show better than Mat Latos. That's not a high bar, but it's a necessary one, because Latos has failed to throw quality starts in six of his last seven outings, and the one exception only met the minimum.  He has a 7.25 ERA over his last seven starts, with nearly as many walks (18) as strikeouts (19) over 36 innings.

Latos' end may not be imminent, because Carlos Rodon's start was pushed back due to neck discomfort that extended to his left bicep. The Sox said an MRI showed no greater reason for concern, though, and assuming Rodon can get back to his routine, the Sox should probably plan on Miguel Gonzalez bringing up the rear of the rotation afterward.

Latos' dud showed why Shields' acquisition was necessary, but the trade troubles me for different reasons. Namely, this:

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who managed Shields with the Rays, said Saturday that Shields' competitiveness is so "off the charts" that "he thinks he can beat anybody." Right fielder Adam Eaton said the Sox could use some of that confidence.

"He definitely has an ego about him on the mound that we need in this clubhouse," Eaton said. "That's only going to help us win. It's good to see management want to make a push here and bring in a guy that's going to bring some fire to the team. Hopefully we can get out of this funk we're in and propel us back to where we were for the first month of the season."

Taken in isolation, this quote is nothing notable. It's just not an isolated quote, because as we noted over the offseason, the Sox still aren't particularly close to sustainability.  From Adam LaRoche to Jeff Samardzija to David Robertson to Melky Cabrera to Todd Frazier to Jimmy Rollins to Alex Avila to Dioner Navarro to Austin Jackson to You Get The Idea, it's as though the White Sox franchise is powered by an old-timey eco-unfriendly engine that consumes veteran presences. Once the confidence from the latest veteran is reduced to embers, the Sox have to find another one to throw into the fire before everything stalls. Internal combustion ain't what it used to be.