Now that the Blue Jays have rattled off a 10-game win streak, we’re almost back to what I think we all expected in the American League East when the season started: a five-team race where nobody -- nobody -- should be considered the automatic favorite. After all, isn’t that what the Baltimore Orioles taught us last year, after months of confident, thoughtful assertions that they would regress, retreat or recoil short of the postseason?
What’s interesting about the Jays clambering past .500 to get back into the thick of things in baseball’s drama division isn’t that they’ve done it; more than a few people pegged this team to win as confidently as they did the Nationals before Opening Day, after all. What’s interesting is how they’re doing it, and who they’re doing it with.
After years of disappointment as a homegrown, big-ticket investment, Adam Lind is delivering for the first time in years, slugging almost .700 for the month of June. Spotted with care, he’s even hitting those lefties he remains in the lineup to face (OPS 1.030) after years of having problems hitting against them (.626 career).
Lind is far from the only surprise hero in the lineup. Colby Rasmus has put up an .861 OPS over the past 30 days, providing a nice reminder that it wasn’t very long ago that he was considered one of the best prospects in the game (including third overall before the 2009 season on Baseball America’s top prospect list). He’s still just 26 years old this season, and after a two-year hiccup, it isn’t inconceivable that his year is for real. An even bigger surprise has been Munenori Kawasaki going from scrap-heap sub at shortstop -- stepping in for Jose Reyes, no less -- to someone providing a .347 OBP.
The rotation has been made a shambles by ineffectiveness (R.A. Dickey has just one quality start in the past month), injuries (fragile young gun Josh Johnson has already missed nine starts) or, in the case of the maddeningly promising Brandon Morrow, both. But setbacks for some create opportunities for others. Chien-Ming Wang has provided innings and winnable games and converted shortstop Esmil Rogers has had a couple of good starts. More significantly, Johnson is back in action and Mark Buehrle is already turned around after a slow start, rattling off quality starts in six of his last eight turns.
But perhaps the most impressive element of the Blue Jays’ run back to relevance has been their bullpen. On the year, its numbers aren’t amazing, allowing 3.5 runs scored per nine and a decidedly average 32 percent of inherited runners to score. But over the past 30 days, the Toronto relievers have gotten tremendous work from a no-name crew fronted by closer Casey Janssen. In that time, skipper John Gibbons’ most frequently used quintet (Janssen, Steve Delabar and Neil Wagner, plus lefties Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup) have pitched 52 times, tossing 58.1 innings while giving up just 1.4 runs per nine. They’ve delivered a 65:16 strikeout:walk ratio in that time. Cecil’s been especially effective, allowing just four baserunners in 16 innings against 20 whiffs. And as much trouble as the Jays’ rotation has been, the bullpen has had to pitch an MLB-leading 267.1 innings, so while its overall RA/9 or Fair Run Average (4.41 according to Baseball Prospectus) hasn’t been earth-shattering, it’s the volume of useful innings plus the pen's recent performance that has been crucial to the Jays' success. As much as any bullpen can be a crapshoot in terms of making too much of small sample sizes, it would be fair to say the Jays’ pen has been a lovely surprise in a moment of need for innings, and Gibbons seems to be getting a lot more mileage out of his unit than other, more famous skippers are getting out of other, more famous (or expensive) assemblages of relief talent.
All of which might lead you to make assertions every bit as confident as last year’s about the Orioles, that surely the Jays can’t keep this up. It would be easy to infer that these are all just the symptoms of victory. And that’s sensible: Keeping your expectations low for guys like Rogers or Wang or Kawasaki is entirely reasonable, and based on an awful lot of direct observation. Is Lind going to slug .700 from here on out? Of course not; who do you think he is -- Chris Davis? These are the guys the regression fairy is liable to clobber with a two-by-four.
But what has helped get the Jays this far doesn’t have to be what leverages the Jays even further into the AL East race. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are bashing -- and they should. In the rotation, Johnson is already back, and Morrow might be before the All-Star break; that could lighten the load on the pen, while keeping more games in reach for the Jays’ homer-happy lineup. The feeble production the Jays have gotten from most of their infield slots will almost certainly improve once Reyes and Brett Lawrie come back in a week or so.
In short, what has gotten the Blue Jays this far doesn’t have to be what they win with in the second half. They can thank their surprise heroes for helping get them back into this thing, but the Jays have a tremendous opportunity to build off this run once they’re back at full strength. In many respects, you can look at the Jays’ slow 13-24 start this year as being very much like what happened to them in 1989, when they started out 12-24 -- and nevertheless came back to win the AL East with 89 wins. In a division where it looks like everybody is going to knock everyone else down, keeping all five teams in the race, that sounds very familiar indeed.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.