David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO — With the dome tightly sealed, Rogers Centre rumbled and shook like a capped volcano during Tuesday’s ALCS Game 4, when Josh Donaldson did what MVPs do, using his bat, glove — and mouth. With the Blue Jays facing a humiliating sweep, in their own building, no less, Donaldson believed this was his back-to-the-wall moment.
It was now or never, so the emotional Donaldson — not content to lead by example — gathered his teammates for a pregame clubhouse chat. Maybe just so Donaldson could know that he tried everything. Because that’s how MVPs think.
“There was no way I was going to leave this series and not feel like I had an impact on it,” Donaldson said.
After the Blue Jays’ 5-1 victory, Donaldson doesn’t need to worry about that. Not after a second-inning homer that gave Toronto its first lead (1-0) of this ALCS and sparked Rogers Centre to life. And not after a diving, full-extension grab to spear Carlos Santana’s bullet grounder in the hole, saving a run in the fifth to keep the score tied at 1.
If there was something that had to be done, Donaldson wanted to be the one to do it, until Indians manager Terry Francona wouldn’t allow him to. That time came in the seventh, when Francona opted to intentionally walk Donaldson to load the bases with none out — and Edwin Encarnacion up next. That really was a no-win scenario, and Encarnacion iced the game with a two-run single that kicked off the pitcher’s mound and into centerfield.
So even when Donaldson wasn’t directly stinging the Indians, he was an obstacle. Francona brought back his ace Corey Kluber on short rest, and Donaldson punched a hole in that invincible veneer by hooking a 2-and-2 curveball over the leftfield wall. Donaldson pumped his fist and screamed while circling the bases. Judging by the ear-splitting decibel level, there were 49,142 fans doing the same thing in their seats.
“He’s vocal,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “He’s a fun-loving guy before a game starts, but then he flips that switch and he’s all business. I’ve never seen anybody like that, because he is so very intense. But guys thrive off that. They expect that out of him.”
The Blue Jays scored more runs Tuesday than in the three previous games combined. But if Donaldson was able to trigger something in Game 4, this ALCS could soon have a different vibe, especially with the Indians sending out rookie lefthander Ryan Merritt for Wednesday. Donaldson is batting .438 (14-for-32) with six doubles, a home run and five RBIs in eight games this postseason. With the Jays now getting a slight foothold in this series, a player like Donaldson can help tip that momentum, as he did from the moment he arrived Tuesday.
“Josh was in his usual form,” Russell Martin said. “He was all over the field. He brought his A game and we need him to bring his A game.”
As much as Donaldson was the Jays’ rainmaker with his bat, the glovework that denied Santana created a huge swing in momentum as well. The Indians had just closed to within 2-1 on Roberto Perez’s RBI double when Santana ripped what looked to be a sure single toward the hole. Until Donaldson went Superman to snare it in the webbing of his glove, then jumped to his feet to deliver the throw.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” said Jays’ starter Aaron Sanchez. “There’s nothing more I can say about JD. I’m glad he’s on our squad.”
Frequently, when teams are on the brink, facing an 0-3 deficit, the common, clichéd refrain from players involves not trying to do too much, to recognize it’s a group effort in trying to shock the world. But that’s not Donaldson’s way. To him, the MVP isn’t a trophy. It’s a lifestyle. Good thing for the Blue Jays.
“When you get down three games to none, there is some frustration,” Donaldson said. “And the fact of the matter is, I’m not ready to go home.”
Thanks largely to Donaldson, everyone will be back at a rocking Rogers Centre for Game 5 instead.