Neal: In lost season for Twins, Donaldson speaks and swings with conviction

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When the Twins signed Josh Donaldson as a free agent before the 2020 season, they believed they were adding a former MVP who also would provide intensity to a team looking to sustain a postseason run.

The postseason run part will not materialize this year, as the team absorbed a rash of injuries early, a brief COVID outbreak and struggles on the mound to fall into last place in the American League Central a year after winning the division.

But more so this year than last year, the Twins have seen Donaldson play closer to their expectations.

His Twins debut season of 2020 was limited to 28 of 60 games because of a calf strain. The year ended up being a clunker, as he batted .222 and missed the Twins' brief postseason series against Houston.

Then came Opening Day this season, when Donaldson lined a first-inning double into the left-center gap, but eased his way into second base and soon had to leave the game with a pulled hamstring. For Twins fans, it appeared to be the beginning of a 2020 re-enactment.

Donaldson — in the second season of a four-year, $92 million deal — only missed ten games and has avoided the injured list since then. His hamstring problems have continued, and he's had to sit out a few games here and there to avoid aggravating it. In recent weeks he's been the designated hitter more than the third baseman. But he was able on Tuesday to start at third for the fourth time in his last seven appearances.

With the Twins in last place and sputtering toward the finish line in a forgetful season, Donaldson could tap out, return to the injured list and let the Twins evaluate other players while he schedules offseason hunting trips and counts down the days until the season is over. But Donaldson has opted to play when and where he's able to.

And he hasn't been bad.

Over his previous 56 games heading into Tuesday, Donaldson batted .265 with 11 home runs and 33 RBI with an .865 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. That's in the range of 30-homer, 100-RBI production over a full season. And any OPS over .800 reveals a productive hitter. His average exit velocity is 94 mph. The only players ahead of him in baseball: Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. Pretty good company.

Sure, it would have helped if more of this came while the Twins were trying to get back into contention. But, on a last-place team, he's just one of a long line of culprits.

Speaking of exit velocity, how about things Donaldson has let fly from his mouth?

Last year, he demanded that umpires be held accountable when they made mistakes. He was tossed from a game in Chicago after kicking dirt on home plate after hitting a tie-breaking home run following a dispute with umpire Dan Bellino one pitch earlier.

This season, he focused on pitchers using illegal substances to increase spin rates. While the league cracked down on the usage of substances like Spider Tack, Donaldson kept a list of around 150 pitchers whose spin rates have fluctuated. On June 29, he homered off of White Sox righthander Lucas Giolito and yelled "It's not sticky anymore!" as he crossed home plate. Giolito used an expletive while calling Donaldson, "a pest" after the game.

Donaldson, while sitting on the team bus in the parking lot following the game, saw Giolito walking to his car and got off the bus to extend the debate. As Sox fans booed him the next game, Donaldson homered in his first at-bat, standing at home plate for a moment to admire his blast.

If you prefer a player to make an impact at the plate without occasional spats with umpires and opposing pitchers, Donaldson is not your guy.

It's been known for years that Donaldson swings with conviction but also speaks with conviction. And the Twins have gotten what they have paid for this season, in both areas.

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