Donaldson, Travis getting positive feedback on paths back to Blue Jays

Arash Madani and Arden Zwelling talk about the return of Toronto Blue Jays superstar Josh Donaldson to the lineup and his lack of serious injuries in his career.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — When it comes to Josh Donaldson and Devon Travis, both currently clearing the final hurdles that separate them and a return to the Toronto Blue Jays full-time, there are words you want to hear and words you don’t. The good: progress, better, improvement, getting close. The bad: setback, difficulty, trouble, not right.

But the best word you can hear? Donaldson’s about to use it.

“As far as how my calf’s feeling right now—it feels normal,” Donaldson said after taking three at-bats as the Blue Jays designated hitter Monday in his first big league spring training game of the year. “That’s what we wanted. So, now I’m just going out there and doing my thing. When the season comes, I’ll be ready.”

Normal is good. The Blue Jays training staff want their recovering players to feel like themselves; to do everything free of pain or discomfort; to perform athletically without thinking about their injuries or compensating for the areas that were hurt. That’s the ultimate goal, and both Donaldson and Travis say that’s where they’re at right now.

“When I step on a field I don’t worry about pain or anything that’s going on. I step out on that field and I only know go time,” Travis said after playing the field for the first time this spring in a minor league game Monday. “When I’m out there and I’m in the box or I’m in the field, I’m going to get the job done. That’s my goal.”

So, here’s where they’re at. Donaldson got his three at-bats, striking out in one, walking in another, and reaching on an error in his third. He felt so good that he wanted to stay in the game for another plate appearance, but Blue Jays manager John Gibbons opted against it. This being spring training, there were a lot of players who needed to get in the game.

Travis, meanwhile, grounded out in both of his at-bats on the minor league side while, much more importantly, playing four innings of second base. He didn’t have a single ball hit to him. But he did get to sprint to cover first base on a few throws, and he worked on taking a hard first step to his left and right on foul balls hit to either side of him, imagining in his head that he was going after a ball in play.

Both players will rest Tuesday. Wednesday, Donaldson is scheduled to play in a major league game at third base. Travis will man his position that day as well on the minor league side. By Friday, both are expected to be back in the Blue Jays lineup for a game in Dunedin vs. the Boston Red Sox.

Assuming everything goes well over the next few days, that Friday game will represent an ideal outcome of the plans the Blue Jays training staff set out for the two players. Each was brought along cautiously this spring, progressing incrementally through their rehabilitations as their bodies let them. They were carefully monitored and assessed every single day, and only moved forward when there was evidence they were prepared to do so.

This is how you rehab injuries in 2017. There are no timetables or benchmarks. You use empirical measurements and let the athlete’s body tell you what do to next. That’s how you limit those bad words like setback, difficult, trouble, not right. And how you bring about the good ones like progress, better, improvement, getting close. And normal.

“It wasn’t that easy for me to be patient, because I want to be out there,” Donaldson said. “But our training staff and everybody that’s here really reiterate the entire time, ‘hey, let’s just take this as slow as possible. Let’s take all the right precautionary steps.’ And that’s what we’ve done to this point and I feel very good.”

Donaldson was always a certainty to be ready for opening day, but it now appears Travis is trending in that direction as well. He’s still finding his timing at the plate, but with each passing game he gets a little bit closer to being himself in the batter’s box.

Advancing to major league pitching on Friday should help, although Travis has been facing plenty of tough pitching on the minor league side. The big difference, players will tell you, is getting into a game-like situation—with the crowd, the uniform, and the pressure all playing their part.

“It was just nice to have some fans in the stadium cheering and stuff,” Donaldson said after his first big league game. “It’s really good to get back into it.”

Donaldson is especially happy to be back considering how much work he put into his body over the off-season. The 31-year-old played through some significant injuries down the stretch last year, which clearly drained his power at the plate. After hitting 34 home runs with a .986 OPS through the end of August, Donaldson struggled in September as the injuries wore on him, hitting just three homers with a .779 OPS.

In response to that, Donaldson completed a rigorous conditioning program this off-season to add muscle and increase durability. He’s noticeably thicker this spring, and while it’s hard to imagine Donaldson not playing nearly every one of his team’s games—he’s missed just 19 over the last four years—he’d like to play more of them closer to full health.

“I really hope the strength training regimen that we did this off-season, and what I’ve continued to do during the course of spring training, will keep me healthy and keep me strong throughout the duration of the season,” Donaldson said. “I’m going to have my nicks and bruises here and there, but hopefully I’m able to recover more and go out there and stay relatively healthy. I feel like if I can play more games than I did last year at a closer percentage to 100 per cent, then I’m going to be better.”