Of course, it was even more difficult to believe the Yankees weren't going to win the division when they had a 10-game lead in mid-July, or even a six-game lead in mid-August.
Now it is mid-September and they have a no-game lead. The Yankees suffered an agonizing 4-3 walk-off loss to the last-place Red Sox on Tuesday night. Combined with Baltimore's victory over Tampa Bay, the Yankees and the Orioles were tied for first place in the AL East -- again.
Since Sept. 4, when the Orioles first tied the Yankees, the Bombers have on three occasions taken a one-game lead. But each time the division race has subsequently been tied again.
"That's what we need to do -- we need to get on a roll," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Tuesday night. When Girardi was asked what was most disappointing about this start-and-stop tendency, he replied, "We haven't been able to get on a run. We haven't been consistent."
The Yankees have been in first place -- alone or tied -- since June 2. Unfortunately, you get nothing for that sort of thing after 162 games.
Still don't believe in the Orioles? With 141 games in the books, they're tied with the Yankees for first place. That should add to their believability. The Rays, who have better pitching than any of the other contenders, are still only three games back in the AL East and should not be written off in the least.
The Yankees' biggest reasons for concern, though, aren't with the Orioles, Rays or any of the teams they'll face in the last three weeks of the season. New York's biggest concerns are internal; unanswered questions on its own roster.
Over their last 50 games, the Yankees are 22-28. Their inconsistent performance has showed up dramatically in the standings, but it is not a problem that just occurred over the weekend.
Have the Yankees had injuries to key performers and valid excuses? Yes, but they're not the only one of 30 franchises in this category.
There are questions that have to be answered and positively for the Yankees to live up to their postseason aspirations. Will first baseman Mark Teixeira's reinjured left calf muscle heal quickly enough for him to be a full postseason participant? Girardi said Tuesday that he was confident that Teixeira would be back in two weeks. There are more than three weeks left until postseason play begins.
Will Andy Pettitte be available? Can he possibly be at his top form after coming back from a retirement and then coming back from a fractured left ankle? Pettitte was a success returning from the retirement, but how often does a 40-year-old pitcher get to make a remarkable return? Pettitte is only the postseason leader in victories. He could make an immense difference.
And speaking of Yankees left-handers, will CC Sabathia return to his best form? This is a topic of considerable discussion and debate. The Yankees can't win anything major in the postseason without Sabathia very close to his peak, either.
And the way things have been going for the Yankees, maybe the real and immediate concern should simply be reaching the postseason as opposed to what the pitching matchups look like for an AL Division Series. Like everybody else, they don't want any part of the one-game playoff that will face the Wild Card teams in both leagues this year. Up until recently, it was unthinkable to view the Bombers in a Wild Card spot. Now they are on the edge of becoming exactly that.
Even now, in a first-place tie with 21 regular-season games remaining, you can look at the Yankees and see a World Series champion. They lead the world in home runs. If they get merely competent pitching, they could clobber their way through three postseason rounds.
But if you watched them play against Boston on Tuesday night, you could also get a vision of a team sitting at home for the postseason. Red Sox starter Jon Lester walked a career-high seven batters in just 5 1/3 frames, but the Yankees stranded eight runners over the first five innings. The big hit was a no-show for the Yanks.
One way or another, there is too much talent here for this kind of thing to happen when it matters most. The Yankees still look like division winners, even though they have allowed their domination of a division to turn into a real, live race.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.