DUNEDIN, Fla. — Wearing a light gray hoodie, blue shorts and black compression leggings, Devon Travis came jogging out of the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse Monday to meet a cool, grey morning. It was time to take another step towards his return.
A gold chain bounced up and down on his chest as he ran long, controlled sprints across the outfield grass. Several members of the Blue Jays’ high performance department looked on, their eyes trained to his form, searching for any sign of discomfort.
What they saw must have been good, as it was announced late Monday afternoon that Travis would make an appearance in a minor-league game Tuesday afternoon in Clearwater, along with fellow recovering infielder Josh Donaldson. The pair will both hit in the game but not run, a first step in their return to full game action.
"We do an eye test," Blue Jays head trainer George Poulis said Monday morning. "You watch closely. You re-evaluate each day. You listen to him, you watch him, you track how everything progresses. If he’s feeling better each day, we’re going to progress him."
That progress has been hard to come by for Travis. Still recovering from a bone bruise in his right knee he suffered last October—he also had off-season surgery on the knee to repair cartilage damage—Travis has been frustrated this spring with what is proving to be a tedious rehab process.
He’s hit, he’s fielded, he’s caught, he’s run—he’s done everything a baseball player does. But he’s still had days when the ailment has held him back.
A bone bruise is a bugger of an injury, one that can take an exceptionally long time to heal, depending on the individual. It can also be a deceptive one, appearing to take two steps forward one day before taking a step back the next.
Every morning, when Travis arrives at the Blue Jays’ Dunedin facility, he’s asked a series of questions about how his knee responded to the work he did the day prior and then put through a bevy of tests. Everything is measured, from the flexibility in his hips to the range of motion in his ankle, which gives the Blue Jays empirical data on how Travis’ muscles and joints are responding to his rehab, and what kind of work he might be ready to perform that day.
Can they push him harder? Can they try something new? Does he require more attention on the trainer’s table? Each and every morning, Blue Jays staff can revise their plans and ensure Travis gets over the injury fully, returning to action exactly when his knee is ready and not a day too soon.
"He’s doing very well," Poulis said. "We’re taking every precaution right now. We’re taking time while we have it to go slow and steady, progress him incrementally, and just make sure that everything’s fine."
Playing Tuesday is significant because it at least gives Travis a chance of getting up to full speed by opening day, which is exactly three weeks away.
It’s still very possible Travis could begin the year on the disabled list to give him a bit more time to prepare for the season. With this year’s advent of a 10-day DL, he wouldn’t even have to miss two weeks.
But the 26-year-old has not wanted to consider that possibility, focusing instead on remaining positive. How he performs Tuesday—and, more importantly, how he feels the next day—will be a good early indication of whether Travis can start the season with the club or not.
"We’ll see," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "It’s hit or miss. Some days he feels better than others. But he’s moving. We’re moving in the right direction."
"He’s very motivated," Poulis added. "Everything we throw at him, he’s answering the bell. And he’s starting to turn the corner. We’ll just keep progressing him. It’s a process."
Donaldson getting into a game is notable, too, if for slightly different reasons. He strained his right calf running sprints early in camp, and has been brought along since at a pace the Blue Jays describe as cautious. The third baseman, who says he’d be playing if it were the regular season, would probably choose another word.
"Josh, he’s a real go-getter," Poulis said. "He’s the guy who will tell us what to do instead of us telling him what to do. He’s the best—he’s the best."
Donaldson has been taking regular batting practice and fielding ground balls for more than a week, and there’s no question as to whether he’ll be ready for opening day. Rather, the determination currently facing the Blue Jays is how to balance being cautious with getting Donaldson enough spring training at-bats to find his timing.
Donaldson still has a number of baseball-specific tests to pass over the next few days that will truly determine his readiness to return. Blue Jays staff will want to see him run the bases at full speed and ask him to perform a number of acceleration and deceleration drills.
They’ll also have him stand at third base and send slow rollers in his direction for him to charge down, field with his bare hand and fire to first base on the run.
"That signature play—that work of art," Poulis said. "We want to see him performing the activities he would have to be doing during a game. And once he gets through that, he’ll be cleared to go."