CLEVELAND — In a last-ditch effort to try to find relief from his ongoing calf issues, Josh Donaldson turned to one of the premier wide receivers in the NFL for help.
Roughly two weeks before being traded to the Indians, Donaldson consulted with Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who happens to be a friend of his. Fitzgerald recommended Donaldson to a sports medicine and soft tissues specialist, Dr. Josh Sandell, who is based in Minnesota.
Sandell used some different techniques than what Donaldson had gone through before, including some used to treat stroke victims, more “natural” remedies and a diet change. The targeted area of treatment wasn’t necessarily only the calf itself, but also the mental side.
“Well, he mixes, kind of, he’s pretty innovative in the fact that he’s starting to use stroke therapy — what they would use for stroke victims — in order to help guys kind of gain back muscular function and nervous-system function throughout the process,” Donaldson said.
After months of frustration, the results came almost immediately, and he again found his stride without sustaining a setback. He finally found the progress for which he was searching.
“He really took me along to that next step to where I could start getting on the field and start moving without pain,” Donaldson said. “Two days after I saw [Sandell], that was the first time I was able to start running, and I ran my longest distance while accelerating probably without any pain.”
That consultation with a future Hall of Fame wide receiver, following weeks of little progress and a season nearly lost, might have been the key that allowed Donaldson to return to the field in time to be seen by scouts and, eventually, traded by the Toronto Blue Jays to the Indians for their postseason run. Without it, that deal might have never been possible.
Donaldson was in the starting lineup as the designated hitter Friday night and is expected to play third base Saturday and Sunday. It’s another milestone in his ongoing rehab process back to full strength, though he’s had plenty of chances recently to test his calf. In the last week, Donaldson has scored from first, beat out a dribbler down the line for a single and made a number of plays at third base.
“I feel great. I've felt great with it,” he said. “The more positive reps that I can continue to gain, the more trust in that I’ll continue to have in it. I haven’t opened it up 100 percent yet on the base paths, but I’m sure that’ll come with time.”
Donaldson has felt comfortable with his swing and the calf on a daily basis. The final benchmark is how he’s able to recover each day. So far, he’s passed each test.
“In baseball, the schedule doesn't always allow us to do that,” he said. “More importantly, they’ve allowed me to go out and play, have a chance to recover, then be able to play. I think the benchmark that I'm looking for is to be able to go out there every day and still be able to come back and recover and feel good about it. So far, I've been able to do that.
"Whatever's been asked of my body, I feel like I've been able to accomplish that.”
As Donaldson builds up volume, he also knows he’ll be aided by the extra off days once the postseason arrives. The Indians will be the No. 3 seed in the American League, likely playing the Houston Astros in the first round. Game 1 is set for Oct. 5.
Donaldson, though, hasn’t always been a fan of the postseason schedule because those extra off days allow teams to pitch their best relievers more often. Donaldson, who lost to the Indians in the 2016 American League Championship Series as a member of the Blue Jays, said he still has some nightmares of Andrew Miller being able to log such a high percentage of high-leverage innings.
Now that he sees Miller take the mound on a regular basis with the Indians, those memories came rushing back.
“We were in a game the other day, Miller was coming in the game, and I was down with [manager Terry Francona],” he said, smiling. “I was like, 'You know, I still have flashbacks of Miller punching me out with that slider.' It's not pretty.”
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.