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Playing it smart: Josh Donaldson's return to Twins' lineup is a start, but finding a way to stay there is the key

Josh Donaldson
Minnesota Twins’ Josh Donaldson bats against the St. Louis Cardinals in a baseball game Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS — Franmil Reyes’ grounder to third appeared to be just another routine play for Josh Donaldson as the veteran fielded it and threw out the Cleveland slugger for the second out of the second inning in the July 31 game at Target Field. The play didn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary but Donaldson knew something was wrong.
“I came and backhanded and I bobbled it and threw him out,” Donaldson said. “Right before I made that play, that’s kind of when I felt it. I felt like a little bit of a — it’s hard to describe — like a little bit of a rolling of the muscle, the tissue.”
This would be a concern for any player, but was especially worrisome for the 34-year-old Donaldson. The right calf strain added to Donaldson’s long list of calf woes. He had revealed in an Instagram post shortly before the injury that he had torn “both calves a total of seven times in two years.” The Twins, who signed Donaldson to a four-year, $92 million free agent contract in the offseason, hit the pause button on his season after only seven games.
Initially, the Twins said Donaldson was day-to-day. Then he underwent an MRI, was shut down for a week and placed on the 10-day injured list. The final tally on missed time: Donaldson sat out for 33 days and 31 games before making his return to the Twins’ lineup for Wednesday’s game against the White Sox at Target Field.
Much like with center fielder Byron Buxton’s return from the injured list on Tuesday night, Donaldson’s impact was immediate. He singled to center in his first at-bat in the opening inning, and then hit a two-run double to right-center in the second to give the Twins a 3-0 lead and chase White Sox starter Reynaldo Lopez. Donaldson struck out in his final three at-bats but the Twins cruised to an 8-1 victory to win two of three games in the series.
“J.D. has about as good of an at-bat as anyone in baseball,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “His entire time he’s been in the big leagues it’s been like that. They are very, very impressive. Even early on just the pitches that he was taking and how much he forces the opposing team and opposing pitcher to work, on top of how dangerous he  is, and how he can impact the ball, kind of says what he’s capable of. But, really from the start, I think with everyone, it’s really just trying not to do too much. Just go out there and be him.”
Donaldson arrived in Minnesota known as an intense competitor and, thus, someone who wouldn’t have much patience for sitting on the IL in a 60-game regular season. One would think that was especially true when the Twins went from a 10-2 start to losing six in a row as August came to an end. That might have been true in Donaldson’s younger days, but his previous injuries have taught him a valuable lesson about patience.
“I would say this goes back to what I’ve learned, and where I would have really tried to influence and put myself into the lineup, I’m now trying to take some of my own ego out of it, and take down some of the competitiveness of, ‘Hey, we need to go out there now,'” said Donaldson, who was slashing .182/.296.,318 with a home run and two RBIs in seven games before he was injured. “I’m trying to take everybody’s perspective to really harness that and say, ‘What’s going to be best not just for myself but for the team?’”
Baldelli, who already is extremely cautious with his players, will be extra careful when it comes to Donaldson. The Twins have an off day on Thursday and it’s likely Donaldson will only play in one game of Friday’s doubleheader against the Tigers at Target Field.
Donaldson acknowledged his latest injury taught him a lesson. The Twins had played two games against St. Louis to open their home schedule, but when the Cardinals left town it was learned they had had a coronavirus outbreak on the team. There was some thought the Twins game that Friday night against Cleveland would be postponed but that didn’t happen. Donaldson ended up getting injured in that game.
“The day where it happened, where I had the issue with my calf, we were kind of waiting around not knowing if we were playing, and then we had to do some (coronavirus) testing, which took a lot longer than what we initially thought,” Donaldson said. “This is no one’s fault in particular. This is just where we’re at. … I didn’t have a really great opportunity to get a good warm-up in.
“So I guess the strategy now is to make sure that no matter what, the priority is — and I think that when you hear Rocco speak, as we have had some conversations about it — that we need to make sure I’m going out there and I’m getting a good warm-up in before. And then, if there’s a chance that something like that pops up in the future, it might be a situation where I just call it and take a day off, to not put myself in that position. I am a competitor and I want to play.”
That’s because it’s far more important that Donaldson can remain in the lineup on a consistent basis, especially as October approaches. “It is tough to see your teammates struggle,” he said. “At the same time, for me, what I enjoyed the most was going out there and competing and winning ballgames. … I personally am excited to go out there and play. It’s something that I’ve been putting a lot of time and energy into, as I do often. Now being able to have the opportunity to come back out and play and help our team, we’re still in a position to go out there and control our own destiny, and that’s important.”