TORONTO – Before Tuesday’s game, Josh Donaldson expressed disappointment at the way his Blue Jays tenure ended. By the time the game was over, last year’s ending didn’t hurt quite as much.
On the field, The Bringer of Rain went hitless in four at-bats and made an error, though he did have a chance at some late game heroics. With two outs in the seventh inning, the Blue Jays intentionally walked Freddie Freeman to load the bases for their former star, but he popped out to short to end the inning.
Still, there was plenty of fanfare for Donaldson before and during the Blue Jays’ 3-1 win over the visiting Braves. Before the game, thousands of fans stood and applauded as highlight after highlight of Donaldson played on the scoreboard. Even the players watched: Donaldson’s new teammates down the right field line and the Blue Jays’ young stars down the left field line. They saw quite a reel.
You had Donaldson hitting walk-off homers, making diving catches and sliding emphatically into home to send the Blue Jays to the 2016 ALCS. Standing alone in right-centre field, Donaldson watched the video tribute then tipped his cap to the fans.
“It was great,” Donaldson said after his first game back in Toronto since being traded to Cleveland a year ago. “I felt like they did a great job. The fans have supported me from day one. Today they really showed that again. It means a lot coming in here. It’s been a while.”
It was merely the first ovation Donaldson would receive in his first game back in Toronto since being traded to Cleveland a year ago this week.
But on a night the Blue Jays honoured their past, Toronto’s new wave of players made a bigger impact on the field. Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., opened the game with three consecutive singles, building a 2-0 lead against Canadian Mike Soroka. Later, Justin Smoak hit his 20th homer of the year to give the Blue Jays an insurance run and prevent the Braves from winning for the ninth time in their last 10 games.
Speaking to the media before Tuesday’s game, Donaldson touched on that trade, his time in Toronto and his bounce-back season in Atlanta. Though he was diplomatic throughout the 14-minute conversation, he made it clear that his tenure with the Blue Jays didn’t end the way he hoped.
“What probably nags at me the most is how my career finished here in Toronto,” he said. “Not being able to play at the time, trying to fight as hard as I could to get back. It wasn’t working out. How everything transpired was something that was tough. At the end of the day, you try to separate it as a business, but as a human being we do get frustrated.”
Shoulder and calf injuries limited Donaldson to just 36 games with the Blue Jays last season. By the end of August, the Blue Jays faced a choice: trade him for what they could get or hold onto him and let him leave as a free agent. They chose the former, acquiring right-hander Julian Merryweather from Cleveland for Donaldson and cash.
“I’m very understanding of what’s going on, and even though things didn’t work out the way I would have necessarily wanted them to, I’m glad that I’ve been able to bounce back this year and I knew that I was capable of doing that,” Donaldson said.
The 33-year-old arrived in Toronto with 32 home runs and 4.5 wins above replacement – an impressive bounce-back after missing considerable time with calf and shoulder injuries a year ago. Tuesday night’s game against the Blue Jays marked his 130th of the season, a testament to his improved health.
“There’s been a lot of things that I’ve changed,” Donaldson said. “My diet has changed. I’ve gone strictly plant-based diet now. I feel like that’s definitely helped with a lot of things as far as helping me recover. It’s gotten a lot of inflammation that I’ve felt over the years out. Being back with (trainers) George Poulis and Mike Frostad, they knew me. They kept me on the field for a long time.”
At the time of the deal, GM Ross Atkins acknowledged Donaldson had ‘frustrations’ with the team’s high-performance department and how the trade process played out. While Donaldson didn’t mention the Blue Jays’ high-performance department explicitly, he suggested the fit was less than ideal for him.
“In 2015 and ’16 I played 155 games every year,” he said. “Things started to change here in 2017 and ’18. It might work for some guys and I hope that it does. It didn’t work for me. Sometimes you have to learn from mistakes.”
Regardless, the Blue Jays were clearly headed in another direction by this time last year. With Guerrero nearly ready to take over third base and numerous other position players vying for at-bats, the front office wasn’t about to prioritize playing time for veterans. By that time, Donaldson knew the rebuild was coming.
“They’ve pretty much declared what they’re doing,” he said. “In 2016, I pretty much had the sense of that when we didn’t re-sign Edwin Encarnacion and then we signed (Kendrys) Morales to a three-year deal.
“I try to be as realistic as possible,” he continued. “There were no talks between any of our core guys about a contract. You could see what they were doing in free agency at the time, whoever they were signing was a one-year deal, three-year deal, so I had the hint that was probably going to play out the way that it has, and that’s what happened.”
As for Merryweather, he was throwing 100 m.p.h. earlier in summer before having a setback in his rehab from Tommy John surgery in July. He has since resumed throwing off flat ground, according to the team. Still, the return now looks underwhelming.
“I understand the business,” Donaldson said. “I’ve been traded three times now. It hurts, especially when you’re part of a team that you really loved and you appreciated being with. And to see where the organization when I first got here was at, and then where we had taken it, and the support that we were getting at the time was awesome.”
On Tuesday, a more modest crowd of 24,578 took in Donaldson’s return to Toronto. Still, the reception they gave him meant a lot after the way things ended last year.
“How things ended, today was a nice step in the right direction, I feel like,” he said. “For me. Mentally, emotionally, being back here.”
“I felt like it was the right step.”