How can a team not miss someone that Alex Rodriguez once called "the world’s best player?"

That player is four-time all-star shortstop Jose Reyes, who is set to return to the Toronto Blue Jays lineup for Wednesday’s matinee in Tampa Bay following a 66-game absence with a severely sprained left ankle.

Forget the team’s recent 11-game win streak that pulled them to within three games of a playoff spot or a starting pitching staff that seemingly can do no wrong of late.

On May 4, after an 8-1 drubbing in Seattle, the Jays were 11 games below .500 (10-21), fans were declaring the most anticipated season in 20 years a write-off, calling for the firing of manager John Gibbons, starters were lucky to pitch into the fifth or sixth inning, and seasoned hitters couldn’t hit a lick.

Toronto won 13 of the next 24 games to finish the month and has taken off in June, going 15-5 (through Monday) to improve to 34-31 without Reyes. The turnaround can be attributed to a much-improved starting rotation, stabilized bullpen, better defensive play and strong offence.

Fortunately for Reyes, whom many considered the key component in a 12-player deal with Miami last November, he can return to a positive environment and not feel the immediate pressure to perform and carry his teammates.

"He’s a big part of this team. I can’t emphasize that enough," Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos told reporters in April. "I don’t believe we’re a team built on one player, no matter how great a player he is."

When Reyes slid awkwardly into second base on a steal attempt in an April 12 game at Kansas City, he was at the top of his game.

"I always go head first, but I got caught in between trying to decide and slid late," Reyes told the Toronto Sun the other day. "I thought my season was over."

Through 10 starts, he had a .395 batting average, .465 on-base percentage, five runs batted in and led the majors with five stolen bases, so the Jays are clearly better off with the career .292 hitter in their lineup.

Seven games into his minor league rehab assignment, first at Class-A Dunedin and now at Triple-A Buffalo, Reyes is hitting .414 with two stolen bases in as many attempts. His ankle also has passed the test in the field as he played 13 innings of Buffalo’s 1-0, 14-inning victory over the Durham Bulls (Tampa’s affiliate) on Sunday.

Reyes certainly made a difference in the performance of the New York Mets when he was in the lineup during injury plagued seasons in 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010 and 2011 (see table below).

Making an impact

YearTeamRecord with ReyesRecord without Reyes
2003NY Mets29-4037-55
2004NY Mets24-2947-62
2009NY Mets19-1751-75
2010NY Mets65-6814-15
2011NY Mets61-6516-20
2013Toronto4-634-31 (through June 24)

Reyes’s injury problems date back to his rookie season in 2003. He made his major league debut on June 10 at age 19 but his season ended after 69 games on Sept. 5 when he suffered a Grade 2 left ankle sprain.

Various leg injuries limited Reyes to only 36 contests in 2004 but he rebounded the following season to lead the National League in stolen bases (60) and triples.

Calf strains, torn hamstring tendons, hyperactive thyroid and oblique (rib cage) injuries have also slowed Reyes over the years.

With the speedster out this season, Gibbons tinkered with 20-plus batting orders in an attempt to ignite a stagnant Toronto offence until settling on former No. 2 hitter Melky Cabrera in Reyes’s leadoff spot on May 11 in Boston. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind, who occupied the third, fourth and fifth slots in the order, each moved up one.

All have excelled and been a big reason for the club’s recent surge.

Cabrera has hit .290 with two home runs and 17 RBIs in 36 games from the top of the order this season through June 24. Overall, he’s hitting .276 with three homers and 28 RBIs in 75 outings and sports a .299 on-base percentage in June.

Here’s how the others have fared since May 11:

  • Bautista: .268, nine home runs, 26 RBIs, .343 on-base percentage (38 games).
  • Encarnacion: .324, 11 home runs, 38 RBIs, one stolen base, .404 OBP (37 games).
  • Lind: .371, nine home runs, 26 RBIs, .399 OBP (37 games).

Defensively, Japan’s Munenori Kawasaki filled in for Reyes, and while he’s hitting only .225 with one homer in 60 games and has a .977 fielding percentage, his enthusiasm and work ethic have been infectious.

"He’s been for me the story of our season," veteran infielder Mark DeRosa, who broke into the majors in 1998, told reporters. "What Muni’s been able to do, not just for us, but for the city, the fans, you can’t help but be proud of a guy like that."

Jose Reyes’s injury history

  • September 2003: Place on 15-day disabled list (Grade 2 left ankle sprain).
  • March 2004: Placed on 15-day DL (Strained right hamstring) and sidelined until June 19.
  • May 2009: Leaves game after aggravating right calf strain. Put on DL and out for season. The next day Mets announce that Reyes has torn right hamstring tendon.
  • April 2010: Placed on 15-day DL (hyperactive thyroid). Reinstated on April 10 but suffers injury to right oblique (rib cage muscle) in batting practice, misses six games.
  • Aggravates injury on July 10 and doesn’t return for 10 days. Pulled from Aug. 26 game after aggravating oblique injury and doesn’t return until Sept. 10.
  • August 2011: Put on 15-day DL with strained left hamstring.
  • April 2013: Placed on 15-day DL (severely sprained left ankle) and sidelined until June 26.