The Chicago White Sox enter a season-defining series against the Cleveland Guardians this week, looking to clinch a crucial spot in the American League Central.

The streak ended Thursday in another disappointing day for the Sox, who lost 4-2 in front of 23,395 at Guaranteed Rate Field.

It’s been a stunning three games for the Sox, who trail the Guardians by seven games with 12 games remaining.

“It’s tough,” Sox right fielder Gavin Sheets said. “Obviously, 162 doesn’t come down to three games. But we knew what we had to do in this series and we couldn’t do it.

“It’s disappointing, it’s disappointing, but it’s not just about this series. We should have played better all season. Obviously, it was a huge streak and we couldn’t continue it. They played great baseball. Of course, it wasn’t just this series.”

The Guardians’ magic number to win the division is five.

“We came into this series thinking it was a very important series because we were chasing them,” Sox starter Johnny Cueto said through an interpreter. “Unfortunately, things went the way they did.”

Cueto, making his first start since Sept. 11 after an illness kept him out for the weekend, allowed four runs — three earned — on eight hits with three strikeouts and a walk in six innings.

“To come up and pitch after being sick, he’s a competitor,” Sox acting manager Miguel Cairo said.

He faced a Guardians team that showcased its run, whether it was on an infield hit, going from first to third on a single or a triple.

Jose Ramirez reached on an infield hit in the first, moved to third on a single and scored on Andres Gimenez’s single to give the Guardians a 1-0 lead.

The Sox tied the game with two outs in the bottom of the first. Jose Abreu doubled and scored on a single by Eloy Jimenez.

The Guardians regained the lead in the third when Amed Rosario reached on an infield single, moved to third when Cueto threw wildly on a pickoff attempt and scored on Ramirez’s sacrifice fly.

Steven Kwan drove in a run in the fifth and scored on another Ramirez sacrifice bunt to make it 4-1.

“They run and hustle, play hard and put the ball in play,” Cueto said of the Rangers.

The Sox got a win in the opener against Shane Bieber, who started the Sentinels, but nothing else until Sheets’ homer in the eighth inning. Bieber allowed two runs on seven hits with five strikeouts in 7⅔ innings.

“Bieber, he’s outstanding,” Cairo said. “He knows how to throw his fastball, his cutter, his curveball. He throws you off balance. And he attacks the strike zone. He makes you rock. He knows how to serve.”

Sheets’ homer cut the deficit to 4-2. Bieber exited after giving up a two-out double to Yoan Mankada in the eighth. Trevor Stephan came in to face Abreu representing the tying run and struck him out.

Closer Emmanuel Clase retired the Sox in order in the ninth for his 37th save as the Guardians won for the 15th time in their last 18.

“We just fell short of a really good team,” Cairo said. “They know how to pass, they play defense and they know how to put a barrel on the ball. You have to play clean and you have to take the chances they give you. It’s not too much.

“They played well and it was a tough task. Our players also struggled. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”

The Guardians dominate the division, while the Sox, the preseason favorite, are just two games over .500.

“You have to play for each other,” Sheets said of the team’s approach heading into the final 12 games. “Go there with the same goal. Go out and try to win every game. Obviously, we put ourselves in a very, very difficult position. I don’t even know what the percentage is at this point, but more than anything we need to come out and play for each other.

“Play to win and no matter where we are we need to try to win every game.”

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