TORONTO – Give the Toronto Blue Jays credit for undoing a good chunk of April’s damage over the past two weeks, pulling themselves back towards relevance just as Jose Reyes is on the verge of a return.
That’s a lot of ground made up in short order, quickly altering the trajectory of a season gone awry.
Still, all that impressive stretch accomplished was to bring them to the real heavy lifting, which began Friday with a riveting 7-6 win over the Baltimore Orioles that ran their winning streak to nine, and moved them to .500 for the first time this season, at 36-36.
It was an ideal opening to 10 straight games with American League East rivals, against whom the Blue Jays are now 13-20, largely due to their 1-8 deficit versus the New York Yankees.
To legitimately pull themselves back into contention, they have to keep doing damage within the division, and while the upcoming contests won't make or break their season, they will provide GM Alex Anthopoulos with an important measuring stick ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
Now is the time to really make the last two weeks matter.
"We're in last place, our goal is not to be .500, our goal is to win the division and win a World Series," closer Casey Janssen said pitching a perfect ninth to set the stage for Rajai Davis's walk-off single. "We look at this run and everyone keeps talking about that .500 mark, we didn't sign up to be .500, we didn't sign up to catch Tampa. We want to catch everybody.
"I don't want to lose sight of that and this team doesn't want to lose sight of that aspect."
They certainly didn't do that before an engaged crowd of 35,472, displaying precisely the type of gritty, determined and relentless game they must continue to play for that to happen.
R.A. Dickey, still working to regain the velocity his back injury sapped from his knuckleball, gave up at least six runs for the sixth time this season, surrendering three home runs in a game for the second time, and left down 6-4.
Yet he ended up with a no-decision thanks to Munenori Kawasaki's first career big-league home run - a two-run blast off Tommy Hunter in the seventh - some more mastery from the bullpen, and the Davis base hit that turned the Rogers Centre into a madhouse, coming right after Mark DeRosa cleverly avoided a tag on a potential inning-ending double play.
"Being on this little roll we're on, that brings out the best in you, guys feel it, but that's the way big-league baseball is supposed to be," manager John Gibbons said. "We've definitely come back to life, that's for sure."
No doubt there, and the contributions kept coming from all corners.
Adam Lind hit a two-run homer in the first, Edwin Encarnacion added No. 20 on the 10th pitch of his sixth-inning at-bat against Jason Hammel and Kawasaki hit an RBI single in the fifth before his two-run drive stunned everyone.
"I would say it's no surprise, but that home run was a surprise," Dickey quipped. "The Kawasaki legend grows, and rightfully so."
With the crowd chanting his name he came out for a curtain call, bowing to all.
"Very happy," he said in his limited English. "Thank you, appreciate. Yeah."
A further reason for optimism for the Blue Jays is that reinforcements are just around the corner.
Reyes might be back as soon as Monday and while that may mean a demotion for Kawasaki -- "My style has not changed since I was a kid, I just enjoy playing baseball, baseball is a fun sport to me. I can say Jose Reyes is the No. 1 shortstop in the world," he said through interpreter Yasushi Kikuchi of Kyodo News - the all-star should provide the club a major boost.
Another bump should come once Dickey sorts through the issues he's fighting through. His knuckler regularly hit 76 m.p.h., creeping closer to the 77 he averaged last year, and now it's a matter of finding a way to maintain and build on his gains.
"I hit a little bit of a brick wall in the fifth and sixth innings, but for the most part I was pretty happy with the way my ball was moving," Dickey said. "Josh (Thole) was telling me it was familiar to him from last year, so that was a good sign, especially early on. But it's going to take me a while to unlearn some bad habits, and hopefully it won't take me too long. Just keep grinding it out and working it out and it will turn for me, as far as the mechanics go."
The Blue Jays are now 4-4 versus the Orioles this season, and some bad blood between the teams may be brewing as reliever Darren O'Day appeared to chirp at Jose Bautista after a strikeout to end the seventh.
Nothing wrong with that, as the Orioles and the rest of the AL East want no part of making it a five-team race in the division. Step by step, the Blue Jays are doing just that.
"Everybody in the AL East is a rival, we want to win every AL East game we can, we want to win every game we can," Janssen said. "I don't want to say there was a lot on the line, but it's a series we want to win and continue the success we're having and carry it on through the weekend and onto the road."
Things are getting real, and it's going to be very intriguing to watch.