TORONTO -- Josh Donaldson will always have good memories from the time he spent in Toronto, playing some of the best baseball of his career while helping to snap a playoff drought in front of a group of passionate fans. Those fans will always have good memories of Donaldson -- and they’ve let him know that with their cheers during this series.
It’s been six years since Donaldson won his American League Most Valuable Player Award while playing his home games in this ballpark, but he threw it back to 2015 by going deep in the first two games of this series, including an opposite-field, two-run shot on Saturday that wasn’t enough to overcome a tough fourth inning by rookie starter Bailey Ober in a 6-2 loss to the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.
Minutes after receiving a standing ovation from the Toronto crowd before his first plate appearance of the game, Donaldson extended his arms on a chest-high sinker over the outer half and drove it into the right-field bleachers to plate Jorge Polanco and give the Twins an early 2-0 lead. He has hit 24 or more homers in seven of the last nine seasons, dating back to his 2013 campaign with Oakland.
"I feel like I've seen dozens of home runs from him over the years that look like that,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He's at his best when he's driving the ball all over the field. He can very easily hit a ball out of the ballpark to right-center field, and that's generally when he's really feeling it and locked in, and then he's really capable of anything at that point because his timing is good and he's ready.”
Donaldson had also received a raucous standing ovation prior to his first plate appearance of Friday’s series opener before he homered in his second trip to the plate, generating some light boos from the crowd regarding the Blue Jays’ tough day on the mound, but also scattered applause for an all-too-familiar power show from the former Toronto star.
“Since I’ve left, they’ve always shown their appreciation for me, and I’ve tried to return that to them as well,” Donaldson said. “I can’t lie, it’s nice to get back here playing in front of these fans and in this stadium that had so many good memories.”
Many of those good memories likely stem from that 2015 season, when Donaldson crushed a career-high 41 homers and 41 doubles and blew away Mike Trout for the MVP Award as part of a Blue Jays squad that snapped a 21-year playoff drought for the franchise.
He’s now more than a half-decade removed from that peak, but as these last two games have showed, the skillset of the former MVP clearly still remains in the 35-year-old Donaldson, who is at or above MLB’s 91st percentile in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, barrel rate, expected slugging percentage and walk rate. In fact, several of those metrics are the highest they’ve ever been in the Statcast era for the slugger.
Though his slowed foot speed likely limits some of the extra-base ability and his numbers aren’t quite as gaudy as they were at that peak, he’s still provided some of the best underlying numbers as a hitter in this league to go with his steady defense at the hot corner.
Ober didn’t allow any hits to the potent Toronto lineup for the first three innings, but the first four batters of the fourth inning all reached base and scored, including a solo blast by Marcus Semien, his 40th of the season, and a three-run shot by Teoscar Hernández. The right-hander snapped a streak of 10 consecutive starts with three or fewer earned runs allowed, which began with a July 20 start against the White Sox.
“They’re very good hitters,” Ober said. “They’re going to make us work, and if we don’t get them to swing and miss, they’re going to try to put the ball in play. And usually when they do, they hit the ball pretty hard.”
The Blue Jays added two in the seventh against rookie left-hander Jovani Moran while the Twins’ offense was held to four hits, including Donaldson’s first-inning blast. The lone home run continued the inconsistent offensive trend that has seen Minnesota occasionally erupt with the long ball while falling largely quiet in other contests, leading to offensive outputs of three or fewer runs in eight of the last 13 games.