Pleasant surprises for the Yankees have included better-than-anticipated production from Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and no significant injuries to a roster that still features plenty of older veterans.
The bullpen is not one of those surprises.
No, that was a unit the Yankees expected to be good from the get-go, and it has been.
The group provided its latest display of dominance Monday night, allowing one hit in a combined 31/3 scoreless innings in a 4-1 win over the Rays in front of an announced crowd of 34,590 at the Stadium.
"I'd put our guys up against anybody," said Brian McCann, who had two of the Yankees' nine hits, including a sixth-inning solo homer into the second deck in rightfield that broke a 1-1 tie. "The stuff that's coming out of the bullpen is incredible."
The Yankees (12-8), winners of six of seven and nine of 11, took sole possession of first place in the AL East by dispatching the Rays (11-9), an accomplishment that caused zero excitement in the clubhouse.
"You don't start punching your playoff tickets in April," Mark Teixeira said.
The way this bullpen is taking shape, however, should give Yankees fans hope that those tickets can get punched sometime in September.
"You feel pretty good," Joe Girardi said, "when we give our bullpen a lead."
Adam Warren pitched well Monday night, allowing one run, five hits and no walks and striking out six, but he lasted only 52/3 innings. The starters' inability to pitch at least six innings has been a minor concern, but to this point, the bullpen -- which leads the majors in strikeouts (78) and ranks second in ERA (1.77) -- has picked up the rotation.
"It's unbelievable," Warren said. "I feel like if you can get them the lead, it's going to be there at the end of the game. You'd like to go as deep as you can, but if you can turn a lead over to those guys, you're feeling pretty good about it."
Justin Wilson, with one scoreless inning, and David Carpenter, with one-third of a scoreless frame, set up the late-inning pair of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller.
"We're all ready to pitch every night. That's our job when the phone rings," said Wilson, who earned the win. "With the back end of Betances and Miller, if we have a lead late, there's a good chance we're going to keep it."
Betances, again throwing 98 mph with a knee-freezing curveball, struck out two in a perfect eighth and Miller pitched a scoreless ninth to go 8-for-8 in saves. He became the first Yankee to record that many saves in the first 20 games. "No one wants to face those guys," McCann said.
After McCann gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead with one out in the sixth, doubles by Carlos Beltran and Stephen Drew, the latter with two outs, made it 3-1 later in the inning.
Rodriguez remained at 659 career homers, going 0-for-3 with an intentional walk. Rays righthander Nate Karns, who allowed one of the two homers A-Rod hit April 17 against the Rays, allowed one run and three hits in 42/3 innings.
The Yankees tacked on in the eighth when Jacoby Ellsbury was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and two outs to make it 4-1.
That was more than enough cushion for the bullpen, which pitched 42/3 scoreless, hitless innings against the Mets the night before. The relievers' two-game total: no runs, one hit and two walks allowed in eight innings.
"That's what you want," Miller said. "You want seven guys that are throwing the ball well and can be trusted in any situation, and I think we're getting there."