June 25, 2013 at 9:56 am

Tony Paul

Blue Jays finally taking flight -- just as the Tigers are about to visit

Munenori Kawasaki (66) and Emilio Bonifacio celebrate the Blue Jays' sweep of the Orioles that upped their win streak to 11 games Sunday. (Abelimages/Getty Images)

If there’s a team plenty happy to be in last place, it’s the Toronto Blue Jays.

There’s no hotter team in baseball, so they won’t be in last place for long.

Before Monday night’s loss to the Rays, the Blue Jays had won 11 consecutive games to move two games over .500 — and right in the thick of the AL East race.

All this after many pundits, myself included, had left them for dead after a slow start out of the gate, following an impressive shopping spree over the offseason.

“I just think it’s a testimony to our togetherness, to our belief in each other, having respect for what we do and coming to work with the idea that we were going to right the ship,” veteran Mark DeRosa told MLB.com. “It remains to be seen what happens from this point on, but certainly it made us a lot more mentally tough.”

It’s true. An 11-game winning streak is sexy, but the Blue Jays have a tough road ahead — given the division they play in. Every team in the division entered the season with postseason aspirations.

Probably none had higher hopes, though, than the Blue Jays, who, after a decade of irrelevance, finally decided it was time to take their shot — and so general manager Alex Anthopoulos went shopping and bagged the likes of Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes.

Reyes has been out with an ankle injury since April, but could rejoin the team this week, as if a team on a heater like this needs a boost of spirits!

Toronto isn’t just beating out on the underprivileged, either, in moving up an unheard-of nine spots in one week in ESPN’s power rankings. The Blue Jays are 15-5 this month, with two series victories against the Rangers, and one against the Orioles, another playoff contender. In late May, they also split series against the Braves and Orioles.

It doesn’t get easier, with this week’s series against the Rays and Red Sox, followed by a four-game, holiday-week set against the Tigers at Rogers Centre.

There’s gobs of credit to go around — including to resurgent slugger Adam Lind, who’s been scorching this month (six home runs, 19 RBIs) and fill-in shortstop Munenori Kawasaki, who’s an even bigger hit in the clubhouse than on the field. The bullpen, led by closer Casey Janssen and Steve Delabar, has been absolutely terrific.

Eventually, however, the rotation — the supposed strength of the team — must step up.

Johnson has shined with a 2.84 ERA in the four starts since rejoining the rotation following a stint on the DL (triceps), and Buehrle (2.16 ERA this month) has turned things around. But Dickey, the reigning NL Cy Young winner, has struggled mightily, with six earned runs or more allowed in four of his last six starts. And the Blue Jays continue waiting for Brandon Morrow to look like the ace his arsenal suggests he can be.

But there’s still time for that to turn around, of course.

The Blue Jays, as a whole, have proven that.

Knebel to reliever first, then start

Clarification time.

Astute Tigers fans will remember that David Chadd, the team’s vice president of amateur scouting, said he views first-round pick Corey Knebel as a starter. Then, when reached by The News, Knebel, a successful closer at Texas, said he was relieved to hear the Tigers would keep him a reliever as he starts his professional career.

So, what gives? Turns out, both are correct.

“We think he can start,” said Scott Pleis, the Tigers’ director of amateur scouting. “But here’s the deal: He’s been closing. We don’t want to stretch him out now. We want him to go out and get his innings. But we felt if we sent him out as a starter, he’d end up getting a lot of innings and throwing a lot of pitches.

“We think it’d be better for him if we let him go out and throw as a reliever and then after this season’s over with, kind of groom him to be a starter, get him prepared to go into next season doing that.”

Even if Knebel’s preference is to stay in relief?

“He’s just more comfortable doing that because that’s what he’s been doing,” Pleis said of Knebel, who never started in three years at Texas. “That’s not to say he can’t be a real good starter.”

Three up ...

ONE: Despite free-agent losses, the RANGERS remain great; they just swept the Cardinals to take over the AL’s best record.

TWO: DH ADAM DUNN finally is hitting again, with a 1.010 OPS in June. That could allow the going-nowhere White Sox to trade him.

THREE: Rookie sensation YASIEL PUIG still is hitting .442 19 games after making his debut. Won’t help the Dodgers this year, though.

... and three down

ONE: Less than a year after the Cubs gave SS STARLIN CASTRO big dollars, he’s scuffling. This month (.131) has been a disaster.

TWO: They’re still in the mix in the AL West, but the ATHLETICS are struggling — and it’s because of pitching (5.00 June ERA).

THREE: If the Phillies want to trade JONATHAN PAPELBON, his stock is dipping. He’s blown three of his last four save chances.

Around the horn

Tigers players Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, Andy Dirks, Phil Coke, Matt Tuiasasopo and Don Kelly will participate in a clinic for under-served children, ages 6 to 16, Wednesday at Wayne State.

The event is part of The Players Trust’s City Clinics program.

Diamond digits

0 — AL East teams under .500

4 — NL East teams under .500 (Nationals, Phillies, Mets, Marlins)

19 — Times Miguel Cabrera has driven in Tigers teammate Austin Jackson, per Elias Sports Bureau. That’s tied for most in MLB, with Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox.

He said it

“That’s not what I do. What I do is close games, I don’t start games.”

Mariano Rivera, Yankees closer, talking to ESPN New York about the grass-roots effort to have him start the All-Star Game this year, his last before retirement

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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