No major-league player has logged more games at third base over the past four years than Josh Donaldson.
The Toronto Blue Jays star plays the game with a reckless abandon, willingly hurtling his body into the grandstands if he has a chance to make a catch on a pop foul, and making daring headlong slides into home plate to try to beat the throw.
His durability is surprising given how hard he plays, having answered the bell in 629 of 648 regular-season games over four years, the first two with the Oakland A’s and the past two in Toronto.
But this season hasn’t even started and the star third baseman, the American League’s most valuable player in 2015, is already on the limp.
He is nursing a strained right calf muscle, which has delayed his participation at the Blue Jays spring training camp. He hurt himself on Friday doing sprinting drills.
It is the same injury, only to a different leg, that gave the 31-year-old some grief at the beginning of last season. It was a year in which he also dealt with a jammed thumb and a hip injury that affected his mobility.
The Blue Jays and Donaldson say this injury is not considered to be serious, although you would be hard pressed to believe otherwise after witnessing the difficulty with which the player was walking Sunday.
Donaldson was using crutches in the clubhouse.
“It’s just a little bump in the road right now and whenever the time comes I’ll be ready,” said Donaldson, who hopes to be good to go in about two weeks.
A healthy Donaldson, playing at his best, will be key to the Blue Jays hopes of advancing to the playoffs for a third successive year.
Clubs walk a fine line over a gruelling 162-game regular season, wedged into 180 days, trying to ensure a star’s health against what’s best for the team.
Other than perhaps Russell Martin, the Blue Jays have no plans to curtail anyone’s playing time over a long season.
“Going in that’s not necessarily the plan,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said. “You know with Russ, we’re going to try and make sure that Russ [will get some added rest], because he’s a catcher. Other guys, if they need it [a break] they’ll get it.”
Gibbons said that, like it or not, players always have played through nagging injuries.“It’s part of the game,” he said. “You look back in the history of the game, your top players they play all the time. They play when they’re banged up, they play when they’re hung over, they play when they’re sick. That’s part of it.
“But if it gets to the point where he [Donaldson] needs it, a mental break because he’s banged up, I’ll give him a day off.”
Donaldson would not be a fan of that.
“My goal is to go out there every day and play,” he said. “That’s my goal. If my body can let me play I want to play every day.
“Another good part of being in the American League is I can DH a few days here and there to kind of take some stress off my legs. But…whenever I come back I don’t plan on there being any kind of breaks in my schedule or anything like that as far as days off are concerned.”
Donaldson’s 629 regular-season games over the past four years rank him third among third baseman in the majors behind Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays (642) and Kyle Seager of the Seattle Mariners (638).
But when you factor in Donaldson’s 26 playoff games in that span he rises to the top of the list among third basemen in games played to 655. He’s in second spot overall among all players over the past four years, behind only Alcides Escobar, the shortstop for the Kansas City Royals, who has played in 661 games.
Toward the end of last season, Donaldson’s production slowed down. His batting average dipped from .304 in the first half of the season to .257 over the second half. And over the final month, when his hip was giving him problems, his average sunk to .222 with just three home runs. His play picked up in the playoffs, however, when he batted .417 (15 for 36) through nine games.
Ball clubs are becoming more attuned to helping players pace themselves over a long season.
Toronto shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has endured a number of physical setbacks since he was traded to the Blue Jays in July, 2015.
Last season he landed on the disabled list in late May and missed 20 games with a quad injury. On July 31, playing against Baltimore, he suffered a minor fracture to his right thumb when he was hit by a pitch and had to sit for three more games.
Tulowitzki said he would be amenable to a bit more time off if it meant his on-field production remained high.
“It’s something me and Gibby [Gibbons] will sit down and talk about, schedule-wise, what makes me the best player day in and day out,” Tulowitzki said. “And if that’s taking days off here and there then that’s the smart thing to do.
“I think you look at all professional sports, it’s being run a little bit differently, from the NBA to the NFL. People are getting smarter and trying to find ways to make players healthier through the course of a season. So for me, whatever we put together, I’m going to stick to that schedule.”
As a catcher, the most demanding position in baseball, Martin has been a workhorse over his career. His 1,306 game starts at catcher over 11 seasons is the second highest in the majors, trailing only the 1,370 games logged by Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals.
But Martin was beaten down physically by the end of last year, with a sore left knee that eventually required off-season surgery, nagging him constantly.
Martin still managed to play 137 games, hitting .231 with 20 home runs, a testament to his toughness.
The Toronto native said that determining playing time, especially for a catcher, is difficult.
“There’s not a magical number,” said Martin, adding that the most important factor is to keep the club up to date on how he is feeling.
“I feel like my job is to communicate with the coaches and be honest with them and tell them, ‘Okay, I’m starting to get a little tired, I can probably use a day.’ It would probably be better for me and for the team.”Report Typo/Error
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