ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — No matter how long their winning streak ended up going, the real work for the Toronto Blue Jays always waited on the other side.
Already this season they’ve most likely taken care of their worst stretch, getting that out of the way in April and early May, and during the string of 11 straight victories that came to an end with a 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday, they may have played some of their best baseball.
Now, comes the true test — are they more like the team that stumbled out of the gate, or the club that charged back into things?
“We gave ourselves a chance, and that’s the biggest thing,” said catcher J.P. Arencibia, who collected two of his team’s four hits. “In this game, everybody knows (how hard it is) to go on streaks, that’s why streaks like that are very few and far between — it’s hard to sweep a three-game series. …
“To go on that streak we had to believe that we were able to do that stuff. … If you don’t believe, if you’re coming and you’re passive, that doesn’t happen.”
Credit for denying the Blue Jays a franchise record 12th consecutive win goes to Jeremy Hellickson, the only starter other Colorado’s Jorge De La Rosa to stifle them over the past two weeks.
The right-hander really offered them just one opening, when Colby Rasmus walked with one out in the second and Arencibia followed with a dribbler up the middle to put runners on the corners. But rather than drawing first blood, as they did in 10-of-11 games during the streak, Maicer Izturis hit into a 3-6-3 double play, getting called out on the back end in a decision that could have gone either way.
It was as if all their recent good fortune was sapped right then and there.
Esmil Rogers, impressively pitching to 1.80 earned-run average in his four starts out of the bullpen, surrendered consecutive home runs to James Loney, uber-prospect Wil Myers and Sam Fuld (only the eighth time in franchise history the Blue Jays have allowed three straight homers, the last time coming May 26, 2012 at Texas) in the bottom of the second, and the Rays never ceded control from there.
“I lost a little bit of my confidence over there and was a little scared to throw my breaking pitch,” said Rogers, burned on a changeup and two fastballs. “I don’t know why, what was coming out of my mind, but I learned in that moment and obviously it’s not going to happen again.”
The Blue Jays managed only one hit off Hellickson — Arencibia’s seeing-eye grounder in the second — and walked four times against him, three by Rasmus, including one during an 11-pitch at-bat in the seventh. Hellickson hadn’t allowed a walk in his previous four starts, but the Blue Jays couldn’t do a thing with the free passes he issued.
There was potential for a new set of late inning-dramatics in the eighth when they loaded the bases with one out against reliever Alex Torres, but Jose Bautista hit into a fielder’s choice to bring home their only run (pinch runner Rajai Davis nearly beat the force at second which would have changed things), and Edwin Encarnacion flew out to deep right to end the threat.
Fernando Rodney pitched a scoreless ninth for his 16th save to drop the Blue Jays back into last in the American League East at 38-37, a game behind the Rays (40-37).
“We know we’re capable of going on such a run now,” said closer Casey Janssen. “We played pretty good ball and to have such a streak you need a lot of guys that contribute. Players started to understand their roles and play to their roles a little bit, and let’s be honest, it got us right back into the race.”
The Blue Jays outscored their opponents 70-27 during the 11-game win streak and shaved off seven games from their deficit in the standings.
They won games in every fashion imaginable over that span, from laughers to squeakers, starting with a 7-5 victory in 10 innings over the White Sox in Chicago triggered by Bautista’s game-tying solo shot with two outs and two strikes in the ninth.
Other particularly memorable contests came Friday, when Munenori Kawasaki hit a game-tying home run in the seventh and Davis’ single in the ninth beat the Orioles 7-6, and Saturday, when Bautista’s two-run homer in the eighth beat Baltimore 4-2.
“I want to say the first one with Jose hitting the home run in Chicago,” Janssen said when asked which victories stuck out for him. “Kawasaki’s home run was huge and maybe jump-started the fan base a little bit more. It seemed like that got the city a little bit more excited and put us over the top on to that winning streak that’s a little bit harder to obtain. People started to take note.”
Put all together, the longest win streak in the big-leagues since the Detroit Tigers won 12 straight in 2011 is an impressive piece of business, and the Blue Jays will be reinforced further when Jose Reyes rejoins them Wednesday for the series finale in Tampa Bay.
“Now the key is to just play good baseball, consistent baseball,” said manager John Gibbons, and he’s right.
The heavy lifting begins now that they’re back in contention, and in pursuit of a new streak.