CHICAGO -- Five weeks ago, the Yankees had a massive 10-game lead in the American League East. But following a three-game series in Chicago -- and the first White Sox sweep of the Yankees at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field home since 1991 -- the picture has significantly changed for New York.
Sure, the Yankees remain atop the AL East, but that 10-game edge is down to three games after a dismal 2-1 loss to the White Sox Wednesday night.
Chris Sale showed why he's the White Sox best pitcher, striking out 13 while scattering three hits and allowing just one walk in 7 2/3 innings, as Chicago put the finishing touches on its impressive three-game sweep.
Sale improved to 15-4 while the AL Central-leading White Sox are 68-55. Addison Reed picked up his 23rd save for Chicago.
Yankees starter Phil Hughes suffered the loss, falling to 12-11, while the AL East-leading New Yorkers are now 72-52. Hughes allowed two earned runs on five hits, walked two and struck out in seven innings.
"Sale's been tough all year," Hughes said. "I knew that if he (Sale) was on, I was going to have to be close to perfect."
New York managed just four hits overall, including Derek Jeter's 13th home run of the season -- and his third of the series.
"I think it's too early (to start worrying about the Yankees' fate)," Jeter said. "We still have 30-something games left. If you were chasing someone, it would concern you more. You're still trying to win the game. Nothing ever changes. It's just the mindset (of a 10-game lead vs. a three-game lead)."
Sale was unquestionably the star of the game with an overpowering fastball and a selection of off-speed pitches that continually kept the Yankees off-balance.
"I'm surprised how hard (Sale) throws," Jeter said. "He can overpower you. He's been doing that against most of the league. The bottom line is we didn't have him in trouble all night. He has a different kind of motion. He gets up to 95 and 96 (mph) with his fastball and throws a lot of off-speed pitches, as well. He's a handful."
When asked to sum up how the Yankees are feeling after losing three straight, Jeter put the situation in basic terms.
"We just have to play better," he said.
Added Hughes, "We went through (a losing streak) in the beginning of the year. There's still lots of baseball left. We know we have to play better and hope we can go to Cleveland and do that."
Alex Rios' solo home run into the left-center field stands in the bottom of the sixth broke up a 1-1 tie and the White Sox would never look back.
Sale handcuffed the Yankees in the first five innings, allowing just two hits: a double to Mark Teixeira in the top of the second and a double to Robinson Cano in the fourth. Neither batter could advance.
Hughes looked almost as strong as Sale, scattering just four hits in the first five innings. However, the big difference between the two starting pitchers was that Hughes allowed a run in the third.
Gordon Beckham led off with a double to right-center field, advanced to third on a bunt single by Yankees castoff Dewayne Wise, and scored on Kevin Youkilis' sacrifice fly.
The Yankees tied the game in the sixth on Jeter's homer, but Chicago answered in the bottom of the sixth when Rios slammed his 20th homer of the season for what proved to be the game-winning run.
"To tie the game up (on Jeter's homer) and then give up the lead the very next inning was tough," Hughes said. "I got a pitch up and it just went out over the plate a little too much. It's one of those things where you have to make good pitches and that one just wasn't good enough."
It's little consolation, but with Jeter's homer, the Yankees have hit a Major League-leading 193 homers this season, the most the team has ever hit through 124 games. The club is on pace to hit 253 homers, which would break the current franchise record of 244, set in 2009. The MLB record is 264 by the 1997 Seattle Mariners.
In other Yankees news, pitcher Ivan Nova, who struggled in Tuesday night's loss, will likely miss at least his next turn in the rotation, according to MLB.com.
Nova complained of stiffness in his right shoulder, according to the report, and will return back to New York to have his arm examined by team physician Dr. Christopher Ahmad. Nova said he felt "something tight in my shoulder" when he threw the last few fastballs during his six-inning stint on Tuesday.
"This was the first time I've experienced that," Nova added. "I'm always worried about my arm. I need to be 100 percent. With any kind of injury, you've got to feel concerned about it."
But Yankees manager Joe Girardi doesn't seem overly concerned: "We don't really think it's a big thing, but we want to make sure," Girardi said. "Obviously, we don't think he's going to make his next start. The DL will be determined on what the doctor says. Short-term, there's a little concern, but I don't think it's anything serious."
Girardi added that right-hander David Phelps will likely take Nova's next scheduled start.
NOTES: Even with a battle between two divisional leaders, only 26,319 fans attended Wednesday's game. ... Finally, after 20 consecutive games without a day off, the Yankees finally get to enjoy Thursday off. "It's tough, I'm not going to lie to you," Jeter said about the fatigue factor of playing so many games in a row, particularly at this stage of the season. "But other teams go through it too. We don't like it, but we have to do it." But the one day of rest will be short-lived, as the Yankees head to Cleveland to continue their current road trip with a three-game weekend series against the Yankees. Of note in that game, C.C. Sabathia will be activated from the DL and start Friday at Cleveland, Girardi said. ... Even though they return to New York after that, they shouldn't unpack their luggage just yet: the Yanks will play 13 of their next 19 games away from Yankee Stadium.