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AL MVP Josh Donaldson still sees himself as an underdog

Josh Donaldson has been lighting up scoreboards since his arrival in Toronto last season. Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

In a baseball season that rarely finds time for breathers or forgiveness, Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson manages to treat every game as if it's the most important nine innings of a lifetime. Sometimes this means going to exceptional lengths to forage for pieces of emotional kindling to stoke a bonfire of competitive intensity.

When a big league player is channeling Sylvester Stallone before a meaningless spring training game in March, it's testament to his desire to give the franchise its $11.65 million worth.

Toronto first baseman Chris Colabello watches Donaldson and takes mental notes on his approach to the game, and Colabello is amazed at how deeply his teammate will dig to gain an advantage. Maybe Donaldson will search the archives and find he's 1-for-6 with three strikeouts against that day's opposing starter. Or perhaps the starter hails from California, and Donaldson remembers he once received a parking ticket in the Golden State. Or maybe he doesn't care for the guy's middle initial, or the way he wears his socks.

"Honestly, I try to make it personal," Donaldson says. "They're trying to beat me and I'm trying to beat them. I try to find something that I don't like or will enhance my mental focus."

One morning in the Grapefruit League, Donaldson mentioned he was having a hard time getting stoked for a game. The next thing Colabello knew, Donaldson had dug up Stallone's inspirational speech to his son from the movie "Rocky Balboa" and it was blasting over the clubhouse speakers loudly enough to startle birds in the vicinity of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

Bryce Harper, the incumbent National League MVP, is a devotee of Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose. Donaldson, his American League counterpart, is partial to the Italian Stallion.

"I'm a big Sylvester Stallone fan," Donaldson says. "Obviously it's a movie production, but I enjoy the whole storyline and I think a lot of people do. There are a lot of motivating factors through the whole series.

"It's the whole David and Goliath story, and he's David every time. He goes in there, and is he going to be able to overcome?"

Last season, when the Blue Jays played a series against the Phillies in August, Donaldson carved out a couple of hours to traverse the 72 stone steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in honor of his hero. Then he shared the moment on his @BringerofRain20 Twitter account.

The only downer of the occasion: It was too crowded to sprint up the stairs, pump his fists and indulge the aspiring Rocky within.

"There was a bunch of people around," Donaldson says. "I didn't want to make myself look like an idiot."

Better than ever?

The Blue Jays have shown some early warts in their effort to repeat as AL East champions. Manager John Gibbons has already dropped Kevin Pillar from the leadoff spot and replaced him with Michael Saunders atop the order. Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Colabello and Justin Smoak are hitting a combined .124 (16-for-129). A lineup known for power and contact is striking out at an alarmingly high rate. The bullpen hit an early rough patch, and it remains to be seen how the rotation of Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez will hold up over 162 games.

Fresh off a four-game split in Boston, the Jays carry a 7-7 record into a three-game series in Baltimore.

Amid the team's disappointing start, Donaldson came out scorching. When it seemed reasonable to assume he might get a little self-satisfied or regress a tad, he has picked up where he left off in beating out Mike Trout for the 2015 MVP award.

Donaldson has recorded an extra-base hit in nine of Toronto's first 14 games and ranks among the league's top 10 in homers (5), hits (17), runs (14), RBIs (13) and slugging percentage (.691). He has also shown a flair for embracing the moment, as he did with a three-run homer in a 4-2 victory over the New York Yankees last week. Of Donaldson's 46 home runs as a Blue Jay, 28 have given Toronto a lead.

Donaldson plays the game with a controlled fury that's becoming harder to find in an age when players can't rely on amphetamines for an artificial boost. Scouts look on with rapt attention when he reaches base, takes a lead, peers out from behind his sunglasses and pulls his helmet down low to enhance his tunnel vision on the pitcher. He's like a poker player who is intent on concealing a tell.

"You never see him mail it in," says a National League talent evaluator. "He's always on, even when you say he shouldn't be on today. Day game after a night game, or they're up 8-2 and you think he's going to give the last at-bat away. He doesn't do that. He doesn't give anything away."

Doggedness was part of the narrative long before Donaldson became a star in Oakland and Toronto. He was a stellar high school athlete at Faith Academy in Mobile, Alabama, and badgered the baseball coach to stick around and hit him groundballs after the end of football practice. The Chicago Cubs selected him out of Auburn University with the 48th pick in the 2007 draft and signed him for a $652,500 bonus.

The perception of Donaldson as a self-made player or "ball rat" overlooks his intelligence and attentiveness to detail. People around him every day see a wonky, almost nerd-like appreciation for the game's subtleties. Donaldson will happily discuss the mechanics of his swing, or the ins and outs of his "movement pattern," or the organizational game plan and where everyone fits in the pursuit of a common goal. New teammates are taken aback by the extent of his baseball savviness.

"We were doing drills during spring training, and he's talking about, 'Here's what we're thinking, and this is why,"' says reliever Drew Storen, who came to Toronto from the Washington Nationals by trade in January. "I'm like, 'OK, I just assumed you dropped bombs and had a cannon arm and were the MVP.'

"I didn't know he had that in the tank, too. It's pretty impressive."

Donaldson's ability to see the whole field is a product of nature and nurture. He spent several years as a catcher in the minors before making the transition to third base in 2012. A little voice inside him tells him he might have a future in managing, although his Type A personality could make that a challenge.

"Before I started catching, I never looked at what everybody else was doing or what their jobs are on the field," Donaldson says. "I compare it to a quarterback. You have to make sure the line is in the right protections and the running backs are going in the right direction to pass block and the receivers are seeing coverages.

"As a catcher, you need to know where the defense is positioned and make pitches that are going into their area. You deal with cutoffs and relays. I've always been a guy who tries to watch and observe to be better."

When Donaldson is asked about his proudest individual achievement in 2015, he ignores the glamour stats and cites his improved baserunning despite less-than-blazing speed.

"If you had 25 Josh Donaldsons on your roster, you'd never lose a game," one Blue Jays official says.

Finding an edge

In spring training, Donaldson stayed at Tulowitzki's place in Dunedin. At the end of the seven weeks, Tulowitzki asked him, "How did you like me as a roommate?"

"You were average,"' Donaldson told him, matter-of-factly.

The exchange is now the basis of a running gag between the two players. When asked how he enjoyed having Donaldson as a houseguest, Tulowitzki chuckles.

"He was average," Tulowitzki says. "We'll just leave it at that."

Contrary to public perception, Tulowitzki reveals that his buddy is actually capable of kicking back and relaxing. Donaldson loves Guns 'N Roses, AC/DC, Metallica and other 1980s metal bands, and his favorite off-field diversion is playing golf. His second-favorite diversion is sleeping in and watching golf on television.

"For some reason, I have a fascination with self-torture," Donaldson says. "I play baseball and golf. That's the epitome of torturing yourself on a consistent basis."

Donaldson was 18 months old when his father first put a golf club in his hands, and he has been smitten ever since. He now plays to a 3 handicap and might be able to bridge the gap to a scratch if he can conquer some minor chipping woes.

He squeezed in as much golf as possible during the offseason, playing in David Ortiz's charity tournament in the Dominican Republic and taking part in the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. When Donaldson wasn't on the links, he was enjoying a few celebrity perks stemming from his 2015 MVP Award. He traveled to Ireland for a guest acting spot in the History Channel drama "Vikings" and appeared on the cover of the "MLB The Show 16" video game.

If the Blue Jays had any concerns that the endorsements and off-field demands might distract Donaldson from his day job, they had no reason to fret. In a little more than a year with the Jays, Donaldson has built up the credibility to be a helpful surrogate for manager John Gibbons and the coaching staff to make sure the clubhouse is slacker-free.

When former Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos acquired Donaldson by trade and Martin as a free agent during the 2014-15 offseason, he valued their character almost as much as their production. By all accounts, the arrival of Tulowitzki helped ratchet up the intensity another notch in Toronto. But Donaldson takes his leadership role as a sacred obligation.

"It's about finding that edge," Colabello says. "That's what makes him special. At 7:05, when the lights come on, he's got something that helps push him."

Blue Jays fans and fantasy aficionados can take comfort in the knowledge that Donaldson has no plans to jog out a groundball or mail in an at-bat any time soon. With the exception of punching slabs of meat, he has done everything in his power to prepare himself for the seasonal grind.

"They call this sport Groundhog Day every day, but it's only gonna be Groundhog Day if you have that perception," Donaldson says. "I feel very fortunate to be in the position I'm in. I don't want somebody to ever say, 'You're taking this for granted, or not respecting this,' because I do.

"If I go out there and say, 'OK, I'm taking it easy today,' I would be doing a disservice to my team, to myself, to the game of baseball and the people who came before me."

Along with his more acclaimed skills on the diamond, Josh Donaldson is capable of delivering a pretty fair motivational speech of his own. A certain boxing icon in Philadelphia would approve.