Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees are fourth in the AL East and 7.5 games behind the first-place Rays on May 16.

And yet, it’s hard to not be cautiously optimistic about the Bronx Bombers, perhaps even fervently. A series loss at Tropicana Field and series split at Yankee Stadium later, we can now say the quiet part out loud:

Let the Rays’ downfall begin.

Don’t get me wrong, that isn’t to say don’t give credit where it’s due. Much of the Rays’ performance this year is that unlike previous seasons, the offense is in full-go. This is thanks to important young players like Wander Franco and Taylor Walls breaking out at the plate. Similarly, veteran Yandy Diaz is also in the midst of a career season.

And just so we’re clear, no. Evan Roberts is not nor was he ever onto anything and the Rays are not cheating. Nor is hitting coach Chad Mottola. The actual explanation is much simpler. The Rays have grossly overachieved thanks to a soft schedule and now have to face some tougher teams.

Just look at how they matched up against the Yankees in both series. They won the series in St. Pete thanks to Jake Bauers missing a catch and catching Gerrit Cole on a bad day. Not to mention, the Rays only won in the latter case because the game went to extra innings and their ghost runner scored in the tenth inning.

The rest of the time? Their long-vaunted bullpen “stable full of arms who can throw 98 mph” couldn’t hold a lead against the Yankees. Oh, and neither Aaron Judge nor Giancarlo Stanton played.

Call it a bad weekend or a bad run, but the fact remains the story was the same at Yankee Stadium. The Rays caught New York on a bad night Thursday and their arms otherwise got battered. Not even ace Shane McClanahan was safe, failing to complete five innings and hold a 6-0 lead.

For further context, the Rays’ bullpen ERA was an MLB-best 2.74 headed into last weekend’s series with New York at the Trop. Today, it ranks seventh at 3.54 while the Yankees’ ranks fourth with a 3.20.

Oh, and just for good measure? Righty starter and Yankee dominator Drew Rasmussen is now out indefinitely, and Diaz is getting an MRI on his groin.

Tampa Bay is lucky to have such a great manager in Kevin Cash. The team has done nothing but punch above its weight with him in charge but he’s about to learn what the Yankees did during last August’s slump. Maintaining a big lead in the division is harder than building one.

The Yankees, meanwhile, can feel pretty confident heading into a four-game set in Toronto. They’re still dealing with a plethora of injuries, and yet seem to be hitting a groove. In a way, they’re thriving.

The Rays, on the other hand, could soon shift their focus to surviving.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.