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Streak dashed, but Blue Jays' ride has just begun

With 11 straight wins, Toronto put sputtering start to season in rearview mirror

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- From the depths of despair the Blue Jays' great expectations have become reality.

Their celebrated 11-game winning streak came to a screeching halt Monday night, but this team has proven in the last two weeks it has the confidence and ability to put its dreadful start far behind.

The Rays, powered by three consecutive homers in the second inning, took care of the streak with a 4-1 victory at Tropicana Field that wasn't nearly as close as the final score.

Jeremy Hellickson, who blanked Toronto on just one second-inning single through seven scoreless innings, shut down an offense that had outscored the opposition 102-53 since June 2.

So the winning streak, which began on June 11 in Chicago, ended quietly at 9:47 p.m. ET as thunderstorms and tornado warnings swirled outside The Trop.

An 11-game winning streak in the rugged American League East, where all five teams have winning records, can do wonders when disappointment and frustration had washed away preseason optimism.

"We had a good run, game over," said catcher J. P. Arencibia. "To go on that streak, we had to believe we were able to do that stuff. To do something like that in baseball, you have to believe. If you're not believing and passive, it doesn't happen."

By winning 11 consecutive games and tying the franchise record, the Blue Jays have proven 2013's outlook was more than press clippings from glossy magazines.

"Losses are never easy, but we've been on a nice little roll. We knew it [losing] was going to happen sooner or later," said Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons. "We'll start another one tomorrow."

Gibbons said he told his players, "Great job -- playing really good baseball, that's what they've been doing. Some nights you run into really good pitching. The Rays are really tough down here. Hellickson has a dynamite changeup, and he was on tonight."

Regardless, call it validation, a form of documentation that the Blue Jays deserve equal billing with the Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees and Rays -- or at least belong in their company.

This is exactly what general manager Alex Anthopoulos and club president Paul Beeston envisioned when they stunned the baseball world with their flurry of offseason moves.

It has been eons since Joe Carter blasted that home run off the Phillies' Mitch Williams to win the 1993 World Series.

Or at least it seems like eons ago, because that's the last time Toronto played postseason baseball. Don't blame their fans if they still cherish faded photos of Carter's celebration, because it was the last time they had much to cheer about.

"We're playing much better, but we couldn't have played much worse," said Anthopoulos. "We're still a million miles from the other teams in our division. We're trying to stay on an even keel; there's so much more work to do."

It was architect Anthopoulos who excited the Toronto faithful when he added R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to the rotation, and shortstop Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera during his busy winter.

The Blue Jays, of course, got off to a dreadful start, and after two months seemed buried in their division. Reyes, former National League batting champion with the Mets, went down in early April with a severely sprained left ankle, and there were myriad other injuries. Reyes is expected to return Wednesday.

The Blue Jays were 10-21 on June 10, nine games below .500 and 12 games out of first place.

"We always figured it was just a matter of time before we started playing better, but it lasted longer than we expected," said Gibbons. "That's all behind us now, and we're rolling along."

The streak began on the night of June 11 at Chicago's Comerica Park.

Trailing, 5-4, and down to their last strike, the Blue Jays rode Jose Bautisa's ninth-inning homer off closer Addison Reed to tie the game at 5. In the 10th, they scored twice and held on for a stirring 7-5 victory.

"That was a big homer," Gibbons said before Monday's game. "We just took off after that and haven't lost since. I have to believe that was it.

"We're playing real good right now. That's the way this game goes. All the other teams in the division are going to hit good winning streaks just like we did. You never know how long it's going to last."

By losing Monday night, the Blue Jays fell back into last place in the AL East behind Tampa Bay, but with their 38-37 record, they're just 5 1/2 games behind first-place Boston. Their four-game series at Fenway Park beginning Thursday night will give them a huge opportunity.

Seldom has there been a division with five teams so closely bunched, all with winning records. With MLB's unbalanced schedule, the teams essentially are beating up on each other.

That's a key reason why the Blue Jays, with their winning streak, have a new lease on life.

Joe Maddon, once a coach for the Angels, pointed out, "Oakland, Seattle, the Angels -- it was pretty good for a while for all three of those teams, but one team was always out of it. This is five now in this division, and it's different. I anticipate it's going to stay this way for the rest of the year.

"The Blue Jays are going to get even stronger when Reyes comes back. That's what they anticipated or envisioned early in the beginning of the year, and it's starting to come to fruition. It makes the division even more difficult to win. It's fun and interesting."

It will be interesting to see how well the Blue Jays recover from the abrupt end to their streak.

"We put it behind us, learn from it, and tomorrow we come ready for another game," said Arencibia.

He didn't say it, but should have added, "With renewed confidence."

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for
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