TORONTO — Josh Donaldson is a confident man, and if you care to ask, he’ll be happy to tell you exactly why that is.
“Have you looked at our lineup? That’s why I’m confident. Our lineup is legit,” Donaldson said Wednesday afternoon, shortly before taking the field with his teammates for the final workout before Thursday’s ALDS opener. “[The Texas Rangers] have a good lineup over there as well. But I feel like our lineup is the best in baseball.”
From some ballplayers that could be read as mere bluster, but from Donaldson you get the sense it truly means something. For one thing, he hasn’t been shy to criticize his own performance in the past, or even that of teammates when needed. Perhaps you remember, “this isn’t the try league, it’s the get-it-done league.”
And for another, he’s heading to the post-season for the fourth straight year. He’s never advanced past the divisional round, but through those experiences he feels he’s gained a solid understanding of what it takes to succeed in October.
“The sheer fact is, if you go out there [in the post-season] and try to do something that you haven’t been doing, you’re probably going to be apt to make mistakes,” Donaldson said. “With all the excitement that’s going to happen in that first inning and everything that’s going on, at the end of that you need to take a deep breath and relax. We have a lot of great players in this clubhouse and we have a great team here. We need to just trust one another. That’s a big thing.”
It’s hard to imagine the Blue Jays being at this moment without Donaldson, the prodigious third baseman who Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos pinched from the Oakland Athletics like a thief in the night last off-season without any of his contemporaries even knowing he was available.
The 29-year-old was worth 8.7 wins above replacement this season, and may soon collect the first MVP award of his late-blooming career. In a strange way, he’s been one of a few constants — along with his fellow mashers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion — on a team that has evolved dramatically over the course of the season.
“I think a big turning point came after the trades when we got all the guys here. We really shored up a lot of spots on our team with the trades. We had a really good team before, but it just gave us a more complete team after that,” Donaldson said. “It gave us confidence in ourselves that we could go out there and do it. Early on in the year, it was one of those things where we had a lot of young guys here, especially in the bullpen. And some of those guys found roles and some of those guys found their way out.”
That’s harsh, but true. The Blue Jays are a vastly different team than they were when they broke camp in Dunedin more than six months ago. As Donaldson has continued to annihilate baseballs near the top of the Blue Jays lineup, the pieces around him have shifted and turned, especially among the pitching staff.
Donaldson thinks the Blue Jays have found the right mix and arrived at the combination of on-field talent and off-field cohesion that can facilitate winning. If anything, what concerns him is the hype around his team, which has been picked by many to not only dismantle the Texas Rangers in the ALDS, but maraud all the way to their first World Series in two decades.
“I don’t mind taking on the favourite role, if that’s what it is, but honestly, when you go out there and you play the game, anything can happen. I’ve seen it too many times, where you’re favoured to win this or favoured to win that and you don’t go out there and perform,” Donaldson said. “But we feel that we have a great team from the first man to the 25th man on our roster. We feel like we’re headed in the right direction and we’re excited to be in this spot.”
If anything, it will be compelling to see Donaldson perform in the post-season, especially at Rogers Centre where he hit 24 of his 41 home runs and triple-slashed an absurd .330/.398/.647 this season.
“Every time I’ve played in the playoffs it’s been in pretty big ballparks,” Donaldson said. “So I haven’t had a chance to play in a ballpark like the Rogers Centre or Arlington where the ball can carry at times. I don’t think our home runs are going to go down.”
And it will be even more interesting to see how Donaldson’s blunt-yet-often-necessary leadership style shines through. Quietly, he’s been a sage presence within the Blue Jays clubhouse, especially for young hitters like Kevin Pillar and Ryan Goins who are eager to ask him questions and glean whatever knowledge they can from a hitter who tore down and rebuilt his swing years ago to become the MVP-candidate he is today.
The other side of that is when Donaldson senses a teammate isn’t doing what they need to be for the team, or is being overcome by the moment. He’s going to let them know that has to change, and it won’t always be in the nicest tones. It’s the get-it-done league, after all.
“You can only control what you’re involved in. I can’t control what somebody else is doing. You can try to talk them along through situations, but at the end of the day you have to go out there and you have to do your part,” Donaldson said. “And the important part is going up there and being able to relax. And it’s going to be hard for some guys. It’s going to be hard for some guys to go out there and control the excitement. But at the end of the day, that’s what you have to do.”