There was something about the Blue Jays' 11th consecutive win that seemed inevitable. Primarily, it was the pitching matchup. Freddy Garcia seems more or less done at 36, Josh Johnson entered the game with an ERA of about 1.90 since coming back from his most recent injury (rumors that Milton Bradley will be putting out a Johnson-specific edition of "Operation" are, sadly, unverified). As it turned out, Johnson wasn't quite at his best on Sunday, but by the time he started giving up runs it had long-since ceased to matter, as Jays hitters had jumped out to a 9-0 lead, scoring in each of the first three innings. The final score was 13-5, and to invoke a baseball cliché, it wasn't nearly as close as it looks.
Thanks to those 11 straight victories, the Blue Jays have come a long way from where they were just a few weeks ago when the only title they were vying for was "most disappointing team in baseball." At that point they were 27-36, 12 games in back of the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox. Now, though they're still in fourth place, they're only three games out of first place in the loss column. Even if the streak ends here, they've projected themselves back into the heart of a wide-open division.
There are a couple of ironies at work here, the first being that the Jays never should have been classed as disappointing. Despite having had the most exciting offseason in recent memory and possessing an entire sack full of mitigating excuses (mostly in the way of injuries), this was still an 73-89 team last year and should have been viewed as an improved team rather than a finished one. Even with all the great pick-ups made courtesy of Wal-Marlins, there were some significant holes left unfilled. Expecting the Jays to show improvement was reasonable. Expecting them to conquer was unfoundedly optimistic.
The other irony is that sometimes a winning streak is indicative of something having changed for the better, sometimes not. For example, the 1916 Giants had a 16-game winning streak in May, then set the all-time record with a 26-game winning streak in September (giving them the record forgives one tie, your acceptance or non-acceptance of which is between you and your designated religious counselor). Unfortunately, they were only 64-66 the rest of the time so they finished a well-deserved fourth.
More often the list of teams with long winning streaks represents a good team playing a little over its head. One of the most famous stretch runs of all time came in 1935, when the Cubs won 21 straight games in September to jump from third place to first. That in no way represented a change of fortunes since the Cubs were already playing at a .603 pace (equivalent to 98 wins in a 162-game season) before the streak. Similarly, the 2002 A's, which set the American League record with 20 straight wins from August 13 to September 4 2002 were a .571 team (a 93-win pace) when they started rolling off win after win.
Examples of a mediocre team reeling off a big winning streak are less frequent, but it has happened. Consider the 1987 Brewers, who opened that season winning 13 straight games and 18 of their first 20. After that they were 73-69 (.514) and finished seven games out of first place. The Brewers had the quintessential .500 team, one with some hitting and some pitching, but not enough of either to allow for consistent winning. A few years later, Bobby Valentine's 1991 Rangers started out 11-14, then knocked out a 14-game winning streak. By the time it had ended, they had gone from sixth place to first. They then proceeded to play most of it back, losing 11 of 12 games, including eight straight. Overall, they were 60-63 once the streak was over. They finished over .500, but in third place, 10 games out.
Obviously, the Blue Jays have to hope their streak represents something rarer, a lasting in-season turnaround. Despite Sunday's offensive explosion, what has aided them this month has been excellent pitching. The team has a 2.35 ERA in June, best in baseball; their starting pitchers' ERA of 3.19 is seventh overall, fourth in the American League.
With the names the Jays have on their pitching staff, particularly in the rotation, you would like to think that it's possible this will all last, that pitchers like R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson will continue doing what we thought they were capable of back during the winter, that Chien-Ming Wang will consider his improbable resurgence. Maybe thinking so is confirmation bias; maybe it's real. But if you want to know how improbable all of that is, how unlikely that what the Jays are doing now is more indicative of the rest of the season than what they did to the point they started winning, consider this: The team with the lowest starters' ERA in baseball this month is the Houston Astros.
The Jays have many things going for them that the Astros don't, including a slugging offense that will soon be augmented by the return of Jose Reyes. Still, second base. Still, a rotation with an ERA of 4.84 even with this month's strong performance. Still, getting Brett Lawrie back from injury and hitting again. Still, Melky Cabrera. By the time you read this, the Jays will be just a couple of hours from putting their winning streak on the line against the Rays. Maybe it will be over tonight, maybe the Jays will get to add a 12th ribbon to their row of medals. Either way, despite what winning 11 straight would seem to suggest, the jury is still out, the story still unwritten. The Blue Jays could go anywhere from here.