For the last 15 years, about the only thing the Chicago White Sox led the American League in was number of bizarre uniforms. But for three weeks now, the Sox have led in a category that matters.

Even after Friday night's 5-4 loss to Baltimore, Chicago held a five-game lead over Texas and Kansas City in the American League West. Fans are rightfully surprised and skeptical any time the word CHICAGO appears atop the standings in August, but many people around the league feel the team is on schedule.

"Ownership has gone out and gotten some bona fide players," said pitcher Dennis Lamp. "We've got the talent. We should be where we are. We've only scratched the surface."

The White Sox were scratching their way to nowhere, in sixth place, 7 1/2 games back on May 26. Since then, however, Chicago has won 40 of 65 games.

The key to any prolonged stretch of success is pitching, and the White Sox have gotten that from Floyd Bannister (5-0 since the All-Star Game), Richard Dotson (12-6), Jerry Koosman (8-3) and LaMarr Hoyt (13-10). But hitting--monstrous, clutch hitting--has propelled the White Sox into a position to win their first division title.

Since June 15, when Manager Tony LaRussa moved lethargic Carlton Fisk up to the No. 2 spot in the batting order, Fisk has hit .360 with 17 home runs and 50 runs batted in. Fisk was struggling through what some teammates say was the most depressing stretch of his career. He had several heated disagreements with LaRussa, and finally took it as a personal and professional affront when he was being platooned early in June.

As Lamp says, "Carlton went crazy and dragged us into first place with him."

Fisk, who now has 19 home runs and 60 RBI, has also moved into the middle of a team run-producing derby involving rookie left fielder Ron Kittle (23 homers, 66 RBI), designated hitter Greg Luzinski (21, 67) and right fielder Harold Baines (10, 60). On the South Side of Chicago, nothing is appreciated like the long ball.

"In Chicago, they just won't settle for the little thrill," said Kittle. "None of that bunt-the-guy-over-to-third stuff. All they want is the big home runs or the big pitching performance."

One of the most misleading statistics in the major leagues this year has been the White Sox batting average: until two weeks ago, Chicago was next to last in the league, under .260, while leading or being near the top in runs batted in. "Whenever we hit, it wasn't many, but it was always with people on base," said LaRussa.

The batting averages still aren't that impressive--no regular player hits .290--but there is an uncommon balance of power and speed. Rudy Law, the center fielder, and second baseman Julio Cruz are second and third in stolen bases with 52 and 45, respectively.

But it's not the offense LaRussa is worried about as the White Sox carry their lead into mid-August.

"Day in, day out, we'll score the runs and get the hitting," he said. "Pitching will be the key for us."

The roster says Chicago should have the best pitching staff in the West, especially now that Bannister is hot. But the relief pitchers have lost 14 of 22 decisions.

Last week, Chicago beat the Yankees three out of four and Detroit two out of three, two of the teams that could win the supposedly superior AL East. The White Sox players, especially Luzinski, who grew up in Chicago, know that those 40,000-plus crowds at Comiskey Park are half-full of skeptics who have been jilted too many times to get excited in early August.

"Chicago is still a Cub town," said Lamp, an ex-Cub. "If we were the Cubs and playing like this, the town would have been torn down by now. This franchise is lucky not to be in New Orleans or somewhere, with all the talk about moving it a few years back. But last week, when we got 170,000 for the Yankee series (a club record), I think you could see the enthusiasm coming back. I know they're still skeptical.