The thought was tantalizing, albeit fanciful: Maybe the New York Yankees would simply languish at the bottom of the American League East all season like a goldfish decomposing on the floor of a neglected aquarium.
It didn't feel crazy in April. Their starting pitching stunk, their offense looked hopelessly dated and lethargic, and the ghost of George Steinbrenner stirred at possibly claiming the soul of either manager Aaron Boone or general manager Brian Cashman.
Alas, their struggles weren't meant to last. And now it looks like the Boston Red Sox will have a real fight on their hands for American League East supremacy.
The Red Sox dropped their third straight Wednesday, losing 4-1 to the Oakland A's to fall below .500 at Fenway Park. The Yankees, meanwhile, shut out the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0 in Tampa for their fourth straight win, a streak that started with consecutive walk-offs in Washington.
The Yankees now trail the Red Sox by only a game. It's the closest they've been to first place since they were 3-3 on April 7.
We shouldn't be surprised. The Yankees were always supposed to be good. It's the Red Sox who have played over their heads. Now we'll see how they respond to the breath of their rivals raising the hairs on the back of their necks.
"Yeah, they will be in it all season," shortstop Xander Bogaerts said. "We know the team that they are, and obviously we know the team that we are. We're going to go in this thing until the end."
It's hard to overstate how bad the Yankees looked in April. They started 5-10 and had almost nothing to hang their hats on beyond ace Gerrit Cole. Major rotation additions Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon combined to win one game with an ERA over 5.00, and controversial starter Domingo German pitched himself down to the alternate site.
Offensively, they had one player (Jay Bruce) struggle so badly, he retired. Catcher Gary Sanchez barely hit .190. Slugger Giancarlo Stanton was right there with him, catching the kind of boos that only $325 million can buy, until igniting in the final week.
The Yankees still found themselves mired in last place as recently as April 26, when they lost the opener of a four-game set in Baltimore to fall to 9-13. The idle Red Sox had beaten the Mariners a day earlier to improve to 14-9.
Since the calendar flipped to May, however, the clubs have rebounded like opposite ends of the same rubber band. The Yankees are 8-2, while the Red Sox have gone just 5-6.
But more than the results, it's how the teams have played. On Wednesday, the Red Sox ran into a pair of outs at home plate and failed to dent a pitcher making his big-league debut for more than a run despite loading the bases with no outs in the first inning.
The Yankees, meanwhile, didn't let seven positive COVID diagnoses keep them from playing flawlessly behind Cole, who blanked the Rays for eight innings on four hits and 12 strikeouts before closer Aroldis Chapman, as unhittable as ever, slammed the door in the ninth.
The Yankees have allowed one or zero runs in six of their last 14 games, with Kluber, in particular, finding the range. He's now 2-2 with a 3.06 ERA and is two starts removed from shutting out the Detroit Tigers for eight innings with 10 K's in a return to his Cy Young form.
Offensively, Stanton has been a monster. He entered Wednesday's action hitting .409 with six homers and 12 RBIs in his previous 16 games, boosting his season average near .300. He's finally partnering alongside fellow behemoth Aaron Judge to give the Yankees the terrifying 1-2 punch they envisioned when they acquired him from the Miami Marlins three years ago.
What that means for the Red Sox is they will not be allowed to comfortably address their own current concerns from the safety of a sizable division lead. Their offense has become too reliant on just four hitters, they don't seem to have anyone who can bridge the eighth inning to closer Matt Barnes, and their low-margin-for-error approach is starting to show signs of cracking just as they enter the most brutal portion of their schedule, a gauntlet of almost nothing but contenders between now and freaking August.
That stretch includes their first visit to New York at the start of June. Those games are going to matter, because it turns out the Yankees had no intentions of staying down for long. We can only hope that three weeks from now we're saying the same about the Red Sox.
"We both have good squads, and as I said, it's going to go to the end," Bogaerts said. "To the wire. Whoever is hot at the end is going to be the one that gets it, but obviously we're just going through a rough stretch right now. Things are going to come around. You can't keep a good guy down for too long, you know, and we're going to bounce back."