TORONTO — In the second inning Friday night, Josh Donaldson walked to the plate looking at runners on the corners and a 3-0 game just waiting to be broken wide open.
He already had one homer off New York Yankees starter Michael Pineda in his back pocket, and as he worked the count 2-0 he had designs on another. He was in a fastball count, but Donaldson knew Pineda liked to go to his breaking stuff at times that other pitchers won’t — he threw an equal number of sliders and fastballs Friday night — so he wasn’t selling out for a heater. If he got the slider, he was ready to attack it.
And then there it was. Out of Pineda’s hand, heading towards the lower half of the zone, sitting right up for him.
“It was just kind of spinning there,” Donaldson said. “It stayed relatively in the same spot in the bottom of the zone and I didn’t put a great swing on it — I ended up going over for a ground ball.”
The putout was 6-4 to end the inning and any potential rally. As he unstrapped his elbow guard halfway between home plate and first base, Donaldson filed the information away.
“I tried to learn from that swing,” he said. “I wanted to get into my legs more when the ball’s lower in the zone. And I was able to do that in my next at-bat.”
That next at-bat, in the sixth, was against a different pitcher entirely, but presented a similar challenge. This time, a 2-1 Jonathan Holder curveball — a pitch that started chest-high and plunged so low it probably would’ve been called a ball if Donaldson had let it go.
But he didn’t, dipping his right knee down to the dirt — shades of Adrian Beltre — and throwing his bat out at the ball, turning a 75-m.p.h. pitch into a 104-m.p.h. rocket off his bat that landed in the outfield seats 401 feet away.
A wide grin crept across Donaldson’s face as the ball left his bat, surely because he knew it was a home run and home runs are cool, but probably also because he made the adjustment. He learned from that earlier swing and this time, instead of putting the ball on the ground and into a glove, he golfed it over the wall.
These are the little things, the tiny adaptations, that go into a two-homer game like Donaldson had Friday night. These pitchers are good. Their stuff is nasty. But Donaldson is constantly working, constantly thinking, so he can stay one step ahead.
“He never throws an at-bat away,” said teammate Justin Smoak. “He hits the home runs and does everything, but I feel like pitch-for-pitch he just never really throws an at-bat away. Over the course of the year, if you can do that, I feel like good things will happen for you.”
As we all know, the course of Donaldson’s year has been brief thus far, a nagging right calf injury limiting him to only 15 games and 61 plate appearances. But he has five home runs already, and a 1.025 OPS to go along with them. When he’s been on the field, nights like Friday have not been scarce.
His first home run of the night came in the game’s opening inning, off another one of those Pineda sliders — a pitch that started off the plate and finished barely on it, curling onto the inside black where Donaldson’s barrel found it as he pulled his hands in towards his ribs.
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It was another crucial adjustment and another impressive piece of hitting. He added nearly 30-m.p.h. of velocity to the 75-m.p.h. breaking ball, driving it 401 feet at 104-m.p.h. off his bat. Pineda heard the sound it made and hung his head, not bothering to watch the ball fly.
You would think that after a two-homer game in which he identified an imperfection with his swing and immediately corrected it, Donaldson would be feeling pretty good about himself. And you would be wrong.
“I’m not quite where I want to be right now,” he said. “I am getting a few pitches to hit as of late. And I haven’t missed them. But there’s definitely some at-bats that I feel like I can do a better job at.
“I know just from how I’m recognizing pitches and executing on some of them. Yeah, there has been times that it’s showed up and it’s looked nice. And it’s nice that that’s happened. But I’m still working on trying to improve.”
Hey, so be it. You’ve got to set high standards for yourself. But one discipline Donaldson surely can’t criticize from Friday was his defence, especially the play he made in the third inning that prevented the Yankees from completely altering the complexion of the game.
Matt Holliday stepped in, fell behind 1-2, and got a Liriano curveball in on his hands that he scorched towards left field. The only problem for Holliday was that Donaldson was in the way, dropping to a knee to pick the liner off the ground, quickly firing to second, and starting an inning-ending double-play on a ball that could have scored two and extended an inning in which Liriano had already thrown 24 pitches.
“Thankfully, that one was more right at me and to my left which makes it a little bit easier to go and turn a double-play,” Donaldson said. “But they don’t call it the hot corner for no reason. When you play third base, that’s what you expect. You have to expect balls that are hit and hit hard at you. It just comes with the territory.”
All in all, a pretty eventful night for Toronto’s third baseman. And a Blue Jays win that wouldn’t have happened without him.