TORONTO — Jose Reyes strolled out of the training room and into the Blue Jays dressing room Sunday afternoon, sporting his signature Superman T-shirt and a wide, satisfied grin.
“Here comes the smile that launched a thousand ships,” one of the Toronto reporters said.
Reyes had good reason to smile. The veteran shortstop is famous for his ebullient personality, for his love of baseball. He had just enjoyed one of his finest days as a Blue Jay, stealing three bases and extending his hitting streak to eight games in a 3-1 victory over the Oakland A’s.
The win completed a three-game sweep of the A’s, who arrived in Canada with the best record in baseball and staggered out of the Rogers Centre with their first four-game losing skid of the season.
It was the Jays who looked like a serious pennant contender over the weekend. They have now won six straight for the first time in nearly a year and are in first place by two games over the Yankees in the AL East – the latest they’ve been alone in first since 2000.
Boy, a year sure can make a difference. Last season on this date, the Jays were 10½ games out of first.
A chic pick to win the division after an influx of high-priced talent, they fell flat and never seriously contended for a playoff spot.
This year, after being generally dismissed, the Jays have finally become the team people expected last season. They’re playing good team baseball, winning games in every imaginable way and having a whole lot of fun.
“Last year, we were supposed to play this way,” Reyes said. “But sometimes in baseball, stuff doesn’t go your way.”
The Blue Jays are doing a lot of things well this year. They lead the big leagues in home runs with 70. They have two of the top sluggers in the AL in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, who hit his major league-leading 12th homer of the month to give the Jays the early lead.
But great teams don’t live by the long ball alone. The Jays’ pitchers allowed only five runs over the three days. They played solid defense.
And Reyes reminded us that when he’s healthy and on his game, he’s one of the most dynamic offensive forces in the sport.
It’s hard to calculate the effect a man’s legs have on a baseball game, but when Reyes reaches base, it’s a potential crisis for an opponent. In the first inning, he took off from second base on a routine grounder to short and slid under the tag to reach third with only one out.
He didn’t score that time, but in the seventh, with the Jays holding a 2-0 lead, Reyes manufactured an insurance run with his sheer daring. He singled and stole second. With one out and Bautista up, he swiped third. Bautista hit a sacrifice fly to make it 3-0, giving Toronto some much-needed breathing room.
Someone told Reyes it was the first time he had stolen three bases in one game in six years.
“Since 2008? Hmm,” he said with a laugh. “I’m feeling good. I got on base a lot. I told you guys before if I get on base a lot, there’s going to be a lot of stolen bases, because my legs feel very good right now.”
That’s good news for Toronto.
Reyes played only 93 games in 2013 as he suffered an ugly ankle sprain on a slide in Kansas City in an April game that put him out of action for two months. Reyes, who had hit .395 in his first 10 games with the Jays, was so distraught he cried with his mother over the phone.
This year, he suffered a hamstring sprain in spring training. He tried to play through it, but left the opener after one at-bat and went on the disabled list. He missed 16 games and got off to a slow start when he returned.
Early in May, Reyes began to feel like his old self. He has reached base in 21 of his last 22 games. From May 7 through Sunday, he went 21 for 64, raising his batting average from .176 to .246. Not surprisingly, the Jays came around, too. They’re 16-5 in their last 21 games.
“Jose is feeling good right now,” said Jays manager John Gibbons, who was ejected for arguing an out call at second that was upheld by the umpires on review. “He didn’t get a whole lot of at-bats before he came back from the DL. But he’s always hit, and he’s exciting. That’s one of the reasons they brought him over here.”
The mood in the Toronto clubhouse has been elevated this year. Winning helps, of course. But Gibbons said he saw signs of his players coming together as a team toward the end of last season.
“When you bring so many new faces and try to form a team, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Gibbons said. “Sometimes, it never happens. We had our ups and downs earlier in the season, but it’s a different feel. That’s a big part of it. You can have all the talent in the world, but you still got to be a team.”
Baseball can be a strange game. The Red Sox, reigning World Series champs, lost their 10th in a row Sunday. A year ago at this time, Reyes was injured. So was J.A. Happ, who lay on the ground for 11 minutes after taking a line drive off the head in May and missed three months.
So on the same day Reyes stole three bases, Happ pitched his best game in a year, shutting out the A’s over seven innings. You never know. Sometimes, the planets align for a bunch of players. One year after being one of the game’s top disappointments, the Jays are a major surprise.
“It’s still early,” Reyes said. “It feels good to play well, but there’s still a lot of baseball left. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. Baseball is crazy. This time a year ago, I was in my house with an ankle injury. Now we’re in first place.
“What else can I say? We’re just going to continue to play the way we’re playing, because this is fun.”