Hours before Saturday’s first pitch, Josh Donaldson was the first to take batting practice, emphasizing work against breaking balls. His Braves teammates later followed suit, taking hacks to a Donaldson-selected playlist which included tunes spanning from Tupac to Hank Williams Jr. to T.I. to Nirvana.
Donaldson homered the day before, but his overall results simply hadn’t been there. He — and his $23 million price tag — came to the Braves with high expectations. “The Bringer of Rain,” as he’s known, was already drawing the ire of fans for underperforming.
Maybe Saturday goes down as the evening the former MVP was revived. Or at least began his redemption for a mediocre start.
Donaldson went 3-for-4, doubling and blasting the go-ahead three-run homer in the fifth in a game the Braves eventually lost 6-5. He followed that up with another home run in his three-hit Sunday, helping the Braves to a 15-1 series-clinching win.
“I felt like I was right there, it was just a matter of time,” Donaldson said. “I got on the field to get in some early work (Saturday) in a relaxed environment, work at my own pace, see some breaking balls. Over the course of the weekend, I had five or six (hits) against the off-speed. That’s something that I’ve been lacking all year.”
His work against breaking balls paid off: On Saturday, Donaldson singled and doubled off Aaron Nola’s acclaimed curveball. He homered off his changeup, which ended Nola’s outing. From the eye-test standpoint, they were some of the best at-bats he’s posted this year.
“I feel like today, first at-bat I got a fortunate hit off a breaking ball,” he said about Saturday. “Second at-bat, I hit the ball into the left-center gap off a breaking ball, too. Then the third (at-bat) I got a changeup I didn’t miss.”
On Sunday, more of the same. Donaldson singled off a slider in the first. His homer came on a first-pitch changeup. He roped a slider for a double in his fourth at-bat.
Donaldson, by his own estimation, is feeling like himself again.
“It’s no secret (breaking balls) are what I’ve been getting a lot of this year,” Donaldson said. “It’s nice to get in a controlled setting, work on some things (in batting practice). ... It translated, but the great thing about baseball is you get the chance to come do it again tomorrow.”
Donaldson began the season slamming the ball without any tangible results. Of late, he wasn’t receiving any results off weaker contact. He said his body finally started feeling closer to what he’s used to during last weekend’s series in Miami.
This weekend, Donaldson looked reinvented in three games against the Phillies, homering in each. He looked more comfortable physically while his confidence is translating to his play. A small sample size, but the Braves will take any ounce of progress and optimism centered on their winter’s grand prize.
“He’s having some good at-bats,” manager Brian Snitker said, acknowledging Donaldson’s improvement against breaking pitches. “He’s squaring balls. He’s not missing them. He’s not fouling balls back. He’s getting good decisions on the pitches he should. The bat speed is unbelievable. When he gets going, he’s the type of guy that can carry you.”
On the other side of the ball, Donaldson has made flashy defensive plays, but his mistakes jump out: His 10 errors are tied for sixth most in the majors and on track to exceed his American-League most 23 in 2014. He was charged an error Saturday when he couldn’t field a hard-hit ball.
Though however his defense grades, the Braves signed Donaldson because of his bat. He’s still been a presence worth accounting for, and he’s still drawn a healthy dose of walks. He and the Braves know they haven’t seen his best, of which the past two nights have provided a small glimpse.
“I’ve been trying to find the proper sequences and probably sometimes overthinking it,” Donaldson said. “Just really trying to get back to the fundamentals of my swing and allow myself to do what I do.”
The Braves’ lineup has been humming. Adding a renewed Donaldson at the clean-up spot would only make the group that much more threatening as it continues producing elite numbers.