The “W” will get pencilled beside “Toronto Blue Jays,” but Josh Donaldson won a playoff baseball game on Tuesday.
He had the home run that turned it. He made the defensive play that buttressed it. He was the fulcrum upon which Jays began slowly levering the Cleveland Indians.
Toronto is still stuck climbing up an ALCS cliff, but you know how Rome was built: “Brick by brick, my citizens. Brick by brick.”
Afterward, Donaldson was not exactly keen to take the credit, but he didn’t go far in denying it. He is, if nothing else, a realist.
“If we were going to lose today, there was no way that I was going to leave this series and not feel like I had an impact on it,” he explained.
He said some nice things about the team, too. But you felt that was the real Donaldson – the guy who is determined to do well even if everyone else has given up. It felt that way to start. Donaldson singlehandedly changed the mood.
Once it was over, all the emotion you see out on the field – skipping across the bases after his opening home run; close to cartwheeling into the dugout after robbing Carlos Santana of an RBI single in the fifth – had disappeared.
This was Donaldson in his Alistair Cooke-mode – genteelly reflecting on the art he’d just presented to the audience.
He only looked rattled once in the postgame – when someone mentioned that he’d spoken to his teammates before taking the field. His face contorted with irritation for a second. Who let that one out?
“I was just getting everybody’s attention,” Donaldson (sort of didn’t) explained.
When the subject of Donaldson’s pep talk was put to the other man on the podium, starter Aaron Sanchez, Donaldson bored his eyes into the side of Sanchez’s head. It was a loose-lips-sink-ships sort of look.
By some distance, Donaldson has been the Jays’ best player this postseason (soon enough, we can start to talk about “best ever”). He’s been hurt the whole time. How hurt you can’t be sure. It’s got something to do with his hip. Whenever he takes more than one base at a time, you can see a hitch start to develop in his stride.
“When you step on that field, you hope [adrenaline] takes over,” Donaldson has said during this run.
It has with regularity. He is a one-man total baseball operation.
When you spend a good deal of time watching him, you notice that Donaldson is not a leaderly person. He isn’t the guy who comes out first to answer questions after a loss (most especially if he did not play well in that loss). He doesn’t attract followers in the clubhouse (à la Troy Tulowitzki) or emanate a force field of monkishness (à la Russell Martin).
He is instead a sort of independent contractor. He comes and plays in relative isolation. He takes great pride in his effort and accomplishment. He doesn’t require a lot of backslapping or positive reinforcement. He’s self-sustaining that way.
“Josh is a very emotional guy. He’s going to say what’s on his mind – good and bad,” manager John Gibbons said. “I’ve never seen anybody like that, because he is so very intense.”
Think of it this way – Gibbons has spent 40 years in the game around some pretty ambitious and occasionally erratic teams (think of the mid-1980s Mets). And this is the most intense guy he’s ever known.
This is the famous “edge” that Donaldson has talked about. It’s the edge that made him great, but also made life hard. A high-school coach once recalled that Donaldson was so driven to succeed at sports that he had neglected to collect a single friend. He was the guy who could not compromise, even when it would have helped him.
“They say perception is reality, so …” Donaldson once said, tantalizingly leaving the thought unfinished.
Whatever he once was, Donaldson has now become what Toronto thinks of when it envisions how winners should look. How they should comport themselves on the field of play, and what they think about losing.
Whatever they say in front of the mics, a lot of guys are pragmatic about performance – one way or the other, they cash a cheque. Donaldson is the one guy you believe when he says he doesn’t care about that. The performance is all that matters.
He can be friendly, even light-hearted, but that’s only when things are going well. Once they’ve gotten tight, he becomes flinty and robotic. He has less and less interest in the niceties. Many in the American media were taken aback when Donaldson, the senior talent in the room, did not present himself after Monday’s Game 3 loss. That’s what top guys do – come out and take the heat.
Donaldson is not a heat-taker. Rather, he is a heat source.
“[I]t’s not always an easy bunch, but it’s a fun group to be around,” Gibbons said admiringly of his team.
Nobody was singled out there, but you just knew Donaldson was top of mind – the guy Gibbons had to be separated from during a dugout flare-up in August.
But within the rigid hierarchies of baseball, Donaldson has ascended to the highest plane – the guy who is so good, he doesn’t need to follow the rules. Others are happy to ignore them in this one case.
It’s still very unlikely that Toronto can come back and win this thing. But if you need portents of something other than doom, think of the fact that the Jays have just gotten past Cleveland’s ace, that they’ll face a guy who has only one major-league start on Wednesday and that they’ve got Josh Donaldson.
He’s working to his own plan. If things break just right, he is so good that that could be enough.
“You make your own luck,” Donaldson said Tuesday. “You create your own destiny.”
That’s not true in real life, but this is baseball. In baseball, anything’s possible.