Photo Credit: John Lott
Josh Donaldson’s mom told him she’d had a dream about throwing out a ceremonial first pitch before one of his games. Her dream probably did not include Darwin Barney and Kevin Pillar, and almost certainly did not feature the suddenly indomitable Ezequiel “Zeke” Carrera.
But those three helped cap off a memorable day for Lisa French, the mother of the MVP, and her son, and the Blue Jays, who are beginning to look familiar again.
Which is to say their offence is showing vital signs that were absent for much of the season’s first three weeks. They beat the Oakland A’s 6-3 on Sunday to take two of three in the series and improve their record to 10-10. (Through their first 20 games a year ago, for those who care about such things, they were 9-11.)
Before the game, Donaldson collected three hunks of hardware emblematic of his MVP season while his mom stood in a camera bay wearing one of his gloves and fidgeting with a ball. Then she and her son stood side by side during the anthems. Finally, she strutted onto the field and realized that dream, with Donaldson crouching behind the plate to receive the pitch.
Then, a big hug for themselves, and another for the cameras.
“I was talking to some of the coaches, and they were like, ‘I hope you really enjoyed that moment because not everybody gets a chance to have their mom on the field and participate in something like that,’ ” he said. “I know how proud my mother is of me. We have a great relationship. To be able to share that, it’s a memory that lasts a lifetime.”
Donaldson’s mother raised him after his abusive father wound up in jail. When he talks about how proud his mom is, he is also saying the feeling is mutual. Their exceptional bond was evident before a national TV audience last November when, after he was announced as the league’s most valuable player, he turned to his mom, embraced her and said, “We did it!”
“I never really thought about my mother throwing the first pitch,” he said. “I’m sure she has a couple times. She told me yesterday that she had had a dream about a week or so ago about throwing the first pitch, and then she got the news that she was doing it. It’s a happy moment for both of us.”
Donaldson says getting “locked in” is part of his pre-game routine. He couldn’t do that on Sunday, not with all the hoopla and his mom there in a Blue Jays jersey. But on this day, he could tolerate a few distractions.
“Before the game, seeing how happy she was, it was a neat moment,” he said.
As he started to head for the dugout, he turned and yelled at his mom to give him back his glove, Then he went out, hit a double to key a rally, drew a walk ahead of a Jose Bautista home run and made a sparkling backhanded stop that saved at least one run, maybe two.
Just another day at the office.
“The guy deserves everything that’s coming his way,” Barney said afterward. “He really leads this team by example and his work ethic. When he goes, we all want to go. You can’t get complacent when there’s one of the best players in the game who’s getting himself ready to play every single day. It just spreads.”
It spread to the bottom of the batting order on Sunday. Batting seventh and eighth, Barney and Kevin Pillar each had two hits and an RBI. Their work was especially important in the third inning. Carrera opened that frame with a homer and Donaldson doubled. But A’s starter Eric Surkamp retired the next two hitters before filling the open base on an intentional walk to Troy Tulowitzki.
From an Oakland perspective, the walk made sense. That is, until Justin Smoak, Pillar and Barney delivered successive two-out RBI singles.
In their first three at-bats, Pillar and Barney coaxed 20 pitches out of Surkamp. That’s close to 20 percent of his total of 97 from two bottom-feeding batters.
“At the bottom of the order, you try to think of yourself as another leadoff hitter,” Barney said. “When you’ve got Donaldson in the two-hole, if I’m hitting ninth I try to pretend he’s hitting third and I’m leading off, trying to get something going, get on base for him however I can, just make those pitchers work. Those pitchers gotta bear down a lot in the middle and the top of our orders. So if we can make them work the bottom, it can wear a pitcher out.”
Surkamp wore out before the fifth inning was done.
Pillar credited Carrera – six-for-nine with a walk in the last two weekend games – with igniting the offence. But the bottom-dwellers came up big too.
“That was a big part of our success last year – guys at the bottom of the order making a conscious effort to turn that lineup over,” Pillar said.
Entering the game, the Blue Jays’ 7-8-9 hitters had a slash line of .195/.257/.270. Last year their 7-8-9 hitters slashed .270/.328/.407. The conscious effort continues.
Whatever else went right for the Jays on Sunday, there was also, as Pillar called it, “the Hutch effect.”
For the uninitiated, this was a reference to Drew Hutchison, who last season averaged nearly eight runs of support every time he pitched. He won 13 games. He also posted a 5.57 ERA and a WAR of minus 1.7.
Hutchison started the season in Buffalo, and will return in a day or so, but he was back on Sunday for a spot start after management determined an extra day’s rest might benefit the rest of the rotation.
He pitched well, if not deep. He left after 95 pitches with two outs in the sixth, but he had yielded only four hits, two of which were solo homers.
Hutchison has never been one to gladly suffer foolish media questions – or even the standard inquiries – and he was impatient with his interrogators after the game.
He said he gave the Jays a chance to win, which is one way he judges success. He said he wasn’t particularly sharp, but made big pitches in key situations. He acknowledged he would rather not be in Buffalo, but whaddya gonna do?
A reporter looking for a stock quote about the offence asked Hutchison how it felt to get that old familiar run support. He cut off the questioner.
“I’m well aware of what our offence can do,” he sniffed. “I think you guys saw that last year and had fun writing about what they did when I was on the mound.”
Then came a truly odd question that got the answer it deserved. Who do you “lean on,” someone asked, to get through your exile.
A furrow formed across Hutchison’s brow.
“I don’t view things the same way you guys do, so I wouldn’t really get into that,” he said, clearly not wanting to be viewed as a leaner.
End of scrum.
Next up: three games vs. the White Sox, whose 2.28 team ERA leads the American League. Just as the Jays’ offence is starting to stir. We’ll find out quickly how that works out.