With back-to-back losses to the Rays on Monday and Tuesday, the Blue Jays' 11-game winning streak is history, but on Wednesday, their chances of living up to those lofty preseason expectations improved significantly. R.A. Dickey made his most dominant start of the season, spinning a two-hit shutout while striking out six, and Jose Reyes returned to the lineup after missing more than two months due to a severe ankle sprain. Behind homers by Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion, the Jays beat the Rays, 3-0.
A leadoff walk to Desmond Jennings in the seventh inning was the only other baserunner the 38-year-old knuckelballer allowed, and no runner reached second base. Check out this mesmerizing GIF from SBNation's @LookoutLanding, in which Evan Longoria whiffs on a knuckler:
Dickey completed his first shutout since last August 31, and needed just 93 pitches to do so, meaning that he pulled off his first career "Maddux," blogger Jason Lukehart's term for a complete game shutout on less than 100 pitches, named after the four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, who accomplished the feat a record 14 times, though a lack of game-by-game pitch totals prior to 1988 does limit the timeframe by which one can measure such accomplishments.
In any event, the shutout was just Dickey's second quality start out of his last seven; he tossed 8 1/3 shutout innings against the Giants on June 5 but has been troubled by the longball, giving up eight homers in the 46 2/3 innings represented by that span. His gem offers hope that the injury-riddled Jays rotation can continue its strong June; rocked for combined ERAs of 5.27 and 5.74 in April and May while averaging just 5.3 innings per start, they're at 3.25 while averaging 6.2 innings per turn this month. Mark Buehrle (3.00 ERA in five starts) has returned to form, while Josh Johnson (2.84 in four starts) has returned from a six-week absence due to triceps inflammation, Chien-Ming Wang (2.18 ERA in three starts) has returned from oblivion, and Esmil Rogers (3.04 ERA in four starts) has made a seamless transition from the bullpen.
As for Reyes, he went 0-for-4 in his first major league game in two and a half months, but he was a welcome sight in the Jays lineup nonetheless, and had no trouble running or on defense, where he made a couple of nice plays. Acquired from the Marlins in the same November fire sale blockbuster that also brought Buehrle, Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio north of the border, the four-time All-Star got off to a sizzling start with Toronto, hitting .395/.465/526 with five stolen bases in 10 games. His last steal, following a two-run single against the Royals on April 12, exacted a steep price, as he severely sprained his left ankle when he couldn't decide whether to slide or take second base standing up.
Though the need for surgery was soon ruled out, the Blue Jays feared he might be on the disabled list for as long as three months, putting his return right around the All-Star break. After a seven-game rehab assignment at High-A Dunedin and Triple-A Buffalo, he's beaten that timetable by about two weeks. He missed 66 games in all, his longest absence from the majors since 2009, when a hamstring tendon injury ended his season in late May and cost him 122 games.
Now, the question is whether Reyes can stay in the lineup the rest of the way. He played in 160 games last year, hitting .287/.347/.433 -- numbers right around his career marks -- and underscoring his availability by leading the league with 716 plate appearances. In the three years prior to that, he played in just 295 games, missing time due to a thyroid problem, an oblique strain and a hamstring strain, one of many leg injuries that make the 30-year-old shortstop's continued availability no guarantee, particularly while playing more than half his games on artificial turf (the team has another three-game series at the Tropicana Dome in August).
To make room for Reyes on the roster, the Jays optioned Munenori Kawasaki to Triple-A Buffalo. Kawasaki hit just .225/.337/.325 in 185 PA, but his combination of solid defense and willingness to take a walk made for a reasonably productive combination (1.2 Wins Above Replacement), and he became a fan favorite for his exuberance. Utilityman Maicer Izturis, who's been sharing time at third base during Brett Lawrie's absence, will presumably serve as Reyes' backup, but he's not the fielder Kawasaki is, and his performance with the glove and the bat (.229/.266/.339 in 231 PA) has actually been worse, to the tune of −0.2 WAR. As for Lawrie, who's been out since May 27 due to his own left ankle sprain, he's scheduled to begin a rehab assignment on Wednesday with Dunedin. The 23-year-old third baseman has hit just .209/.268/.374 in 153 PA this year, but when he returns, the Jays will be able to field their intended lineup for the first time since April 10. Perhaps by then, they'll have cleared .500 for good (they're 39-38 now, six games out of first place in the AL East) and can begin living up to those preseason expectations by making their way towards their first playoff spot since 1993.