TORONTO — Chris Archer wasn’t bad Thursday afternoon. He pitched seven innings, gave up only three runs, struck out 10. That’s a strong day for a starting pitcher. But Archer’s team lost, and a primary reason why was that he gave up two home runs to one of MLB’s most prolific hitters at the moment: The resurgent Josh Donaldson.
“He’s just so hot right now,” Archer says of Toronto’s third baseman. “I didn’t execute on a couple of pitches against him, but I don’t want to take anything away from him. We haven’t seen a hitter as hot as he is right now for a long time.”
Those pitches Archer’s talking about were a 3-1 slider in the first inning, and a first-pitch fastball in the fifth. Donaldson crushed both of them 390-plus feet in the opposite direction at over 106 mph, a pair of no-doubter home runs that give him six in his last five games, and 11 in his last 19.
Any hitter will take that stretch. But perhaps no hitter needed it quite as much as Donaldson, whose current tear follows a span of 18 games that saw him fail to leave the yard once. It wasn’t that long ago that Donaldson’s season looked like a disappointment in comparison to the elite standard he’d set for himself since his 2013 breakout, as a variety of injuries limited his ability to produce at the plate.
Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak, who hits behind Donaldson in Toronto’s lineup and has the best view of anyone for his teammate’s plate appearances, isn’t surprised.
“Oh, he’s been unbelievable,” Smoak says. “But I think it was just a matter of time — coming back from injury and stuff like that — until he got his timing. The last two weeks have been really impressive. But, honestly, it’s something, being here the last few years, that you just expect.”
Let’s step back for a second. Perhaps you remember a 6-5 Blue Jays loss to the Los Angeles Angels on a Saturday afternoon earlier this season, a game that saw Roberto Osuna cough up a two-run lead with one out in the ninth inning. You remember that game because it happened less than three weeks ago.
Following that loss, Donaldson’s OPS was .790 through 62 games. He had 10 home runs on the season. His wRC+ stood at 113, suggesting he’d been an above average major-league hitter, but a far cry from the MVP-calibre player he’d embodied in seasons past.
Today? A mere 19 days and 16 games later? Donaldson’s OPS has shot up 150 points to .940, a higher number than he posted in his 2015 MVP campaign. He has twice as many home runs after hitting his 20th off Archer Thursday afternoon. His wRC+ has ballooned to 150, which puts him among the offensive class in the game. Perhaps you’ve heard about Smoak’s breakout campaign? His wRC+ is 147.
Simply put, Donaldson has completely resuscitated his season in an extremely short amount of time. He always remained one of the best hitters in the game, but now he’s producing like it. And he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
“Josh is on fire right now,” says Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “He really looks like he’s looked from day one since he got here. That’s big.”
Health must play a factor in this. Donaldson missed extended time earlier this year with a right calf strain and battled a left knee issue shortly after he returned from the disabled list. This season will be Donaldson’s first since 2012 in which he doesn’t play at least 155 games and he has a well-earned reputation for playing through a variety of physical ailments.
But if you ask him, his recent success merely comes down to execution.
“I feel like I’m not missing my pitch. I’m not fouling as many pitches back,” Donaldson says. “And I’ve been able to capitalize on some mistakes.”
His manager agrees.
“When he’s getting a pitch that he likes, he’s not missing it,” Gibbons says. “But he’s no different than any of the other guys, except he runs into fewer down times than most. … You can tell [opposition pitchers are] being careful with him. And when he’s going good, you really have to.”
Donaldson now has a rare opportunity over his team’s final 41 games. He’s almost singlehandedly kept his team in the American League wild card conversation, like a lifeguard towing a drowning body to shore. He’s also reinserted himself into the top-10 American League hitters, with his wRC+ less than 10 points behind MVP candidates George Springer and Carlos Correa.
Playing as well as he has in 2017, and perhaps in his career, Donaldson could turn what looked like a disheartening season into a special one. If he keeps hitting like this, who knows how far he — and his team — can go.
“I’m just here to play and hopefully my play helps us win games,” Donaldson says. “And, so far, I feel like it’s done that over this couple-week stretch.”