- Associated Press - Monday, June 24, 2013

TORONTO (AP) - Riding their longest winning streak in almost 15 years, the Toronto Blue Jays are getting ready to welcome four-time All-Star Jose Reyes back to the lineup.

Not that anyone’s rushing him, mind you.

That’s a big change from two weeks ago, when the moribund Blue Jays were desperate for the return of Reyes, a dynamic shortstop and former NL batting champion who’s been sidelined since early April with a severely sprained left ankle.

“We haven’t decided anything yet,” manager John Gibbons said Sunday in response to a question about the timing of Reyes‘ return. “It’s kind of a day-to-day thing. You want to bring him back to screw it up?”

No one wants to mess with the winning chemistry Toronto is enjoying right now _ not even in the case of Reyes. With a franchise record-tying 11 straight wins, the Blue Jays are on the best streak by any big league team since Detroit won 12 in a row back in 2011.

Behind exceptional starting pitching, timely hitting and an all-but-untouchable bullpen, Toronto has won 15 of its past 18, outscoring opponents 102-52 in that span.

“I’ve been waiting for this since the season started,” slugger Edwin Encarnacion said after hitting his 21st homer and driving in four runs in Sunday’s 13-5 rout of Baltimore. “I believe in this team so I knew things had to change, things had to become good for us. That’s the way right now and we enjoy it, enjoy the moment. I’m not surprised by this. I know this team is good and I know we can do it.”

Belief was harder to come by when Reyes‘ lengthy absence, and a host of other problems, threatened to derail a highly- anticipated season for the Blue Jays, who haven’t made the playoffs since winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.

Even before spring training, Toronto was pegged as a favorite for the Fall Classic after an offseason overhaul that added Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle in a massive trade with Miami, and reigning NL Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey in a deal with the New York Mets.

But the Blue Jays stumbled to a 10-21 start and were stuck nine games below .500 (27-36) after losing to the Chicago White Sox on June 10.

Eleven wins later, Toronto is above .500 for the first time all season and has a new lease on life in the hyper-competitive AL East, where all five teams boast winning records.

“It was a battle early on, we all know that,” Gibbons said after his team thumped the Orioles for its third straight series sweep. “We always figured it was just a matter of time before we started playing better, and it lasted longer than we expected. But that’s all behind us now and we’re rolling along.”

Blue Jays relievers have allowed just six earned runs in their past 76 innings. The starters, meanwhile, have allowed two earned runs or fewer in eight of the past 10 games, posting an ERA of 2.25.

“You want to get here as early as possible because it’s a lot of fun being here, being on this streak,” Johnson said after beating Baltimore Sunday for his first victory of the season. “You just want to keep playing good baseball and keep the winning going.”

The turnaround also means Toronto can afford more patience when it comes to Reyes‘ minor league rehab. While many thought he’d be back Monday for a three-game series at division rival Tampa Bay, general manager Alex Anthopoulos said Sunday that Reyes might not return until Thursday, when the Blue Jays begin a pivotal four game set at Fenway Park against the AL East-leading Red Sox.

Like Reyes, Johnson is one of several Blue Jays players to miss time with injuries, sitting out 31 games with a sore right triceps. Third baseman Brett Lawrie (left ankle), starters Brandon Morrow (forearm) and J.A. Happ (knee, head), and late-inning reliever Sergio Santos (triceps) all remain out of action.

But with Johnson healthy again, Reyes close to a return, Encarnacion swatting home runs and a once-leaky defense starting to look sharp, the rebuilt Blue Jays are finally hitting their stride.

Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, limited to just a pair of singles in Toronto’s weekend sweep, said he welcomed another contending team into the AL East mix.

“It shows that this division is getting better, it’s heating up,” Jones said. “It’s good, it’s good for this division. We all have to maintain it through the end of this month, throughout the All-Star break and then the second half should be pretty fun.”

For a while, it looked as though the Blue Jays might miss out on all that fun. After 11 straight wins, there’s reason to smile in Toronto.

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