After completing their worst road trip in 28 years last month, reality began to set in for the New York Yankees.
The Yankees went 3-10 on the trip -- losing eight straight at one point -- to fall 15 1/2 games behind the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox and into sixth place in the wild-card standings, 5 1/2 games back.
The reality was not that they were out of contention, however. To the contrary, the Yankees realized that as poorly as they had played, they were still in the hunt.
"We very easily could have been buried with that trip that late in the season," Yankees catcher Mike Stanley said. "And that gave us a bit of confidence to know that we played as bad as we could play for a two-week stretch and we're still not out of this thing. We said, 'Let's see if we can't turn this thing around.' "
The Yankees did exactly that by winning 10 of 13 on the ensuing homestand, including three-game sweeps of the Red Sox and the AL West-leading California Angels.
The Yankees, whose remaining schedule consists of all sub-.500 teams (Orioles, Blue Jays, Tigers and Brewers), won last night for the 14th time in 18 games and moved into a tie with Seattle for first place in the wild-card race.
The Yankees had won six straight to pull ahead of the Mariners before Wednesday's loss to Cleveland.
Projected as the team to beat in the preseason, New York finally looks the part on the field.
"You can put all kinds of names on paper and make analogies of it all, but you have to put it together on the field," Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly said. "It's been frustrating because we have a good club. We really just haven't been able to do it on a consistent basis."
In their past 18 games, the Yankees have been hitting and pitching with remarkable consistency. They're batting .315 with 17 home runs and 123 runs (6.8 per game) in that span.
And their road woes also have disappeared, with last night's 5-4 win over the Orioles being their fourth in their past five games away from Yankee Stadium.
Several hitters have made contributions, but the spark provided by Wade Boggs and Bernie Williams at the top of the order may be the most significant.
New York is 20-14 since Aug. 4 in games in which Boggs leads dTC off and Williams follows. In those games, Boggs is hitting .371 with 30 runs scored and Williams is batting .368 with 25 runs.
The starting pitching has been led by Jack McDowell, who has gone 6-2 with a 1.71 ERA in his past eight starts, including five complete games and two shutouts.
Rookie left-hander Andy Pettitte is 4-0 with a 2.38 ERA in his past four starts, including last night's win.
And hired gun David Cone has won six of eight decisions since being acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays.
It's not that the Yankees' surge was unexpected, it just happened a little later than predicted.
After acquiring Cone, Ruben Sierra and Darryl Strawberry within a week ending Aug. 4, the Yankees became the popular pick to soar past Boston and win the division.
When the Yankees began heading in the opposite direction, however, speculation arose about manager Buck Showalter's job security.
"It was in the back of our minds," Stanley said of Showalter's situation. "But each time you go out, you're trying to win a championship. That's not only for yourself, but for the team and the organization. That will include a manager keeping his job."