TORONTO -- This was back when there was still snow on the ground, as fresh as the memory of what had been the worst season by a Boston Red Sox team in decades, their second last-place finish in 80 years. Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter was in Fenway Park by special invitation, a guest at a charity event sponsored by former Sox general manager Theo Epstein.
Showalter was mock annoyed, telling everyone within earshot that his life had just gotten that much harder because the Red Sox had just gotten that much better. The Sox, he said, would be their usual contending selves again.
To the skeptic, Showalter was just being polite, offering some post-Christmas cheer to Sox GM Ben Cherington, who had recast his roster, beginning in the manager's office but not stopping there.
One month into the 2013 season, we all know better. Showalter wasn't blowing smoke; he was sounding an alarm, one repeated earlier this month by Rays third baseman Evan Longoria after the Sox swept three straight from Tampa Bay.
"I'm nervous," Longoria told reporters. "I'm scared of them. I don't know if that's the word for it, but I think that they're a team to be feared."
Longoria made that comment almost one year to the day the Sox blew a 9-0 lead to the New York Yankees at Fenway Park and lost 15-9, a defeat that would be a benchmark but hardly the final word in a season rife with failure and ridicule. The only thing opposing players had to fear last season was blowing a hamstring in their eagerness to play the Sox, who in a final act of self-caricature managed to end the season with a worse September record than their epic collapse of the year before.
But now, it is May Day, and all has changed, just the way Showalter predicted and Longoria acknowledged. Despite a 9-7 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night, the Sox finished the month of April with the best record in the majors, 18-8.
The past two times they had the best record in April was in 2007 and 2004. Seasons, you might recall, that ended with duck boats parading through the streets of Boston.
No one is printing World Series tickets just yet, but so far the Sox have emerged as one of the season's big surprises, leading a division, the American League East, in which many of the wise guys had placed them at or near the bottom.
"This is a unique situation over here, to tell you the truth," Jonny Gomes said the other day. "This might be, like, the first offseason where management openly said we're going after character, we're not going after numbers, you know.
"This is a unique clubhouse, and I've been in quite a few."
But all those Eagle Scout badges go only so far.
"That's what I keep telling people," Gomes said. "We can hit and pitch, too."
The pitching, especially, has been the foundation of the team's early success. From Bar Harbor to Yarmouth, the refrain constantly repeated was that this team would go only as far as Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz would take them. Well, one month into it, neither one has been saddled with a loss. Tuesday night was the first time in six starts the Sox have lost a game started by Lester, who came out of the game with a no-decision.
Buchholz takes the mound Wednesday with a 5-0 record, 1.19 ERA and five straight starts in which he has gone at least seven innings.
They have set the tone for a starting rotation that began the night with the second-lowest ERA in the American League and recently has been fortified by the return of John Lackey, who gave up just one run Sunday and joins Ryan Dempster as veterans who bring a stabilizing presence to a rotation that lacked one last season.
The bullpen, meanwhile, not only weathered a trip to the disabled list by the new closer, Joel Hanrahan, but rediscovered an old closer in Andrew Bailey, who reeled off five saves and a win in dominating fashion. And the bridge to the ninth has rarely looked stronger than with Hanrahan, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara and Andrew Miller, although Tazawa suffered a hiccup when he gave up a game-deciding home run to Edwin Encarnacion on Tuesday night.
As often happens with teams that win with regularity, the big hits haven't all come from the big names. Yes, Mike Napoli drove in 27 runs in the month, Will Middlebrooks hit six home runs, Jacoby Ellsbury stole a club-record 11 bases and Dustin Pedroia has a .444 on-base percentage. But Shane Victorino has a bad back, Stephen Drew has been slow coming back from a concussion and Gomes just hit his first home run Tuesday and had two RBIs in the month.
The gaps, however, have been filled by the likes of Daniel Nava and Mike Carp, the unlikely corner outfielders flanking Ellsbury in Victorino's absence, and now the entire lineup has been lifted up by the return of David Ortiz, who has been hitting at an insane pace after being idled for nine months. In his first nine games, Ortiz has batted .500 (18-for-36), driven in 15 runs and hit three home runs.
He is so hot that exasperated fans in Toronto, seeing reason (age, injury) to expect the opposite, took to chanting "Steroids, Steroids" at him, seconds before he launched a wicked line drive for a three-run double that gave the Sox a short-lived lead.
"This is not just another bat in our lineup," Nava said. "It's another bat named David Ortiz."
And overseeing it all is a manager who has deflected credit for the revival of a team whose offseason ad campaign was all but begging its fan base to give this bunch a chance. "It's all about the players," Farrell has said, time and again.
Will it last? Except for the Blue Jays, the other teams in the division -- the Orioles, Rays and Yankees -- have been winning with regularity for the past couple of weeks. No one is a lockdown favorite. But no one is counting out the Red Sox. Not anymore.