Jose Reyes ready to take flight

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- He still finds it hard to comprehend that he was out-tripled last year by Dillon Gee and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

He still finds it almost laughable that he stole as many bases all last season as he once stole in a week and a half back in 2007.

"That wasn’t me," said Jose Reyes on Friday, of the impostor who played shortstop last season for the Toronto Blue Jays. "That was somebody else playing."

But he and the Blue Jays aren’t sitting around this spring, waiting for a report from the Ontario Bureau of Missing Shortstops. They’re just happy the Jose Reyes they thought they traded for 15 months ago burst through their door a couple of weeks ago.

He’s healthy. He’s happy he’s healthy. And he’s especially happy that 2013 is a season he can now refer to in the past tense. So this year, Reyes promised Friday, "they’ll see the real Jose Reyes."

And by that, he means stealing bases like that one-time Flushing Flash he used to be: "I don’t want to put a number on it," Reyes said, before putting a number on it. "But less than 40 would not be acceptable." (For the record, he swiped just 15 last year.)

And by that, he also means actually hitting his first north-of-the-border triple, and maybe a dozen or so more where that came from: "Every year I’ve been healthy, I always hit at least 10," Reyes said, incredulously. "I played 90 games last year and didn’t hit a triple? That’s hard to believe."

No kidding. But that’s because the last the Blue Jays saw of the real Jose Reyes was April 12, in Game 10 of that past-tense season. He was hitting .395/.465/.526 at the time, with five steals in five tries, and appeared headed for One of Those Years -- until he got mixed up in the play that wrecked two seasons at once:

A) His.

And B) his team’s.

It was the sixth inning of a game in Kansas City. Reyes took off for second on a stolen-base attempt, couldn’t figure out whether to slide head-first or feet-first and, in retrospect, made the wrong choice.

He went feet-first, got his left ankle all tangled up beneath him and wound up with a severely sprained ankle. Except that "severely" doesn’t begin to describe it.

"When it happened, the first thing in my mind was that I was going to miss the whole year," Reyes said. "When the trainer [asked] me, ‘Can you move your ankle?’ I said, ‘I can’t even FEEL my ankle.’ I wasn’t crying. But a tear was coming down my eyes. I said, oh man, I come to a new team, with high expectations, and now, 10th game of the season, I went down for who knows how long? Oh man. That was tough."

Tough? Devastating was more like it. The Blue Jays had won exactly two games all season at the time. And while they were allowed to continue playing for another 5 ½ months, that dream season of theirs would never be the same.

"Imagine a car trying to start without a spark plug," said R.A. Dickey, Reyes’ teammate in both New York and Toronto. "That’s what it was like."

Well, trust us, Jose Reyes doesn’t need to meet with any representatives of a battery company to know he was brought to Toronto to be this team’s official energizer. But even after he pushed himself to return in late June, that just wasn’t physically possible.

"I wasn’t able to play like me," Reyes said. "I wasn’t able to steal [bases] the way that I want to because my ankle, when I came back, wasn’t 100 percent at all. Not even close. ... I couldn’t move around too much at shortstop, to the side. It was hard running the bases. I was scared a little bit. It was tough. I found a way to play like that, and I did OK. But some of the stuff I did in the past, I wasn’t able to do it.

"Like I said before, they didn’t see the real Jose Reyes. I always try to play exciting baseball. But it’s more fun for me when I’m able to steal, when I’m able to help my ball club with my speed, get a triple, clapping at third base. And I don’t think they had the opportunity last year to see me play like that."

He did hit .296/.353/.427 on one leg. But his extra-base-hit percentage (7.2 percent) was the second-lowest of his career in any season where he got at least 300 plate appearances. He was just 7-for-13 in attempted steals of second after he came off the disabled list, by far the worst rate of his career. And his range-factor numbers were way below the league average for the first time.

So he went home and took a month and a half off to heal, then spent the winter doing stretching and strengthening work on his ankle. After an injury that severe, "it’s never going to get normal," Reyes said. "You’re always going to feel something. But that’s something I just have to deal with."

And this would be an excellent year to start dealing. He’s about to turn 31 in June. He’s in the third year of a six-year, $106 million contract he thought he was going to spend basking in the Miami sun. And it’s safe to say the first two seasons of that deal haven’t been anything like what he had in mind.

But this, said Jose Reyes, feels like the year. The year for him to re-establish who and what he is as an infectious, disruptive leadoff force. And the year for his team to remind all the experts out there why so many of them picked the Blue Jays to win the AL East just one short year ago.

"This year, they’re picking us to finish last, and I hope it stays like that," he laughed. "Maybe this time, it’s going to be the other way around. Last year, they pick us to finish first and we finish last. This year, they’re going to pick us last. Maybe we’re going to be first. So you never know, man. You never know."