MINNEAPOLIS – Jose Contreras gave the struggling White Sox eight strong innings to help Chicago beat the Minnesota Twins 2-1 Sunday and maintain a 31/2-game AL Central lead going into a critical series with second-place Cleveland.

Second baseman Nick Punto misplayed Jermaine Dye’s two-out grounder for an error in the eighth, allowing Chicago to take the lead and Contreras (13-7) to win his sixth straight start.

The White Sox still have the league’s best record (90-58) with 14 games remaining despite a 22-23 mark since Aug. 1. They begin a three-game series at home Monday against the Indians (87-62).

Chicago finished the season with a three-game series at Cleveland, which leads the New York Yankees by 11/2 games in the wild-card race.

Juan Rincon (6-6) gave up consecutive two-out singles to Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski in the eighth, and Dye hit a bouncer that Punto tried to backhand unsuccessfully, allowing pinch-runner Ross Gload to score from second.

Damaso Marte got the first two outs in the ninth, and Bobby Jenks finished for his third save.

Contreras gave up one run and five hits, improving to 9-2 since the All-Star break.

Minnesota, nearing elimination from postseason contention following three straight division titles, faces its biggest rival again next weekend in a four-game series at Chicago.

Minnesota starter Kyle Lohse needed 92 pitches to get through five innings, but he only gave up one run – on Aaron Rowand’s two-out RBI single in the fourth. Konerko had walked and Pierzynski had been hit by a pitch.

Since his removal from a rough outing against Texas on Sept. 6 after just two innings and the conflict that developed because of that between him and manager Ron Gardenhire, Lohse has allowed two runs in 12 innings.

Minnesota helped Contreras with bad baserunning. Punto led off with a triple in the third and couldn’t score. Hesitating when Jason Bartlett grounded to second, he broke too late for the plate and was easily thrown out by Konerko from first base.

The Twins got three straight singles in the fourth, the last by Jacque Jones to drive in Jason Tyner. Lew Ford bunted, hopped over the ball in front of the plate and then stopped – perhaps believing it was foul. Pierzynski picked it up and started an easy 2-5-4 double play.

Notes: Pierzynski, who made his major league debut with Minnesota in 1998 and was the regular catcher for three seasons through 2003, apparently forgot for a moment which team he plays for after getting hit in the third. He flipped his bat toward the home team dugout before realizing his mistake and advancing to first with a slight smirk. … The White Sox improved to 15-29 when scoring two runs or fewer. The Twins are 5-42 in that situation.

AP-ES-09-18-05 1635EDT

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