Make no mistake, the Chicago White Sox know what the standings say.
They say this weekend's series with the visiting Houston Astros could be a playoff preview.
"We definitely need to treat these like playoff games," White Sox starting pitcher Dylan Cease said after Friday night's game.
But Friday night's game continued the trend that's haunted these White Sox during an otherwise stellar season:
They struggle to beat good teams.
At least that's what the results say. The White Sox have one of the best run differentials in baseball — though that's a stat that took a bit of a hit after Friday's 7-1 thumping of a loss to the Astros — but one of the game's smallest win totals against winning teams. The first five games of the season against Houston have all been losses. Almost all have been lopsided affairs.
Before Friday's game, the first of the second half, White Sox manager Tony La Russa said that last month's four-game sweep in Texas was one of just two bad series his team had in the season's first three and a half months.
After watching Friday's bout, it's reasonable to wonder if that number will grow to three this weekend.
The White Sox started in promising fashion, hitting the first two pitches that left Lance McCullers Jr.'s hand for extra-base knocks. Tim Anderson tripled ahead of Yoán Moncada's double, and the White Sox had a lead. But the offense went quiet from there, accounting for just one hit the rest of the game, a leadoff single in the ninth by Anderson.
The lack of offense made Dylan Cease's 5.2 innings of three-run ball look a little less impressive than it was against a lineup the caliber of the one the Astros boast. Aaron Bummer coughed up four runs in the seventh to remove "striking distance" from the night's vocabulary.
And so the White Sox — who closed the first half on a three-city feast through Detroit, Minneapolis and Baltimore, claiming the American League's best record and baseball's biggest division lead heading into the break — are faced with the same question they were faced with before all that success:
Sure, they look capable of making the playoffs, but what can they do once they get there?
If the Astros buzzsaw awaits, would the hypothetical postseason appearance be over before it starts?
"First of all, I don’t look that far ahead. I look at today," La Russa said. "We have two more games (against Houston this weekend), and you seize the series against them. I thought the score was not quite as competitive as we are.
"We scored one run. That’s not enough to win. I think they outpitched us. I think we pitched better than seven runs.
"Come out tomorrow and compete again. I don’t look beyond that."
That's the mentality that got the White Sox this far, and it only makes sense they stick to it. Though Cease talked of some potentially heightened awareness when squaring off with a team as good as the Astros — Tim Anderson has long described these types of first-place squads as "the teams you want to play" — his teammates sung a different tune pregame, talking about taking a "hunter, not hunted" mentality into the second half, no matter the opponent.
But beating up on the Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins and Baltimore Orioles can only get a team so far.
Surely, the White Sox will be a different group come October. At the very least, they're expected to be on the other side of an injury hurricane that currently has half their starting lineup missing. Eloy Jiménez is rehabbing now. Luis Robert and Yasmani Grandal are hoped to return before the end of the regular season. And who knows what the trade deadline will bring, with general manager Rick Hahn promising an aggressive approach.
The Astros, though — and other teams like them — will be there waiting. The hope is the White Sox will be up for the challenge of taking down their fellow contenders en route to the World Series. But so far, that's proved difficult.
And the Astros, no matter how much fans want to boo them, have proved to this point to be an immovable object in the White Sox way.