CLEVELAND — At first blush, Josh Donaldson’s mad scramble to home plate that won Game 3 of the ALDS looked like pure instincts. Just a ballplayer who likes to take risks. Just a guy who silenced that little voice in his head that said ‘maybe the safe choice is to stay at third’ and took off. Just a gutsy, determined play.

And, in a lot of ways, it was. But that play was also an accumulation of lessons learned over a very long time; over 10 years and more than 1,300 games of professional baseball; over a career that went from quad-A player to MVP; and over four straight seasons playing in October, when plays like that mean exponentially more than they do in July.

The Josh Donaldson who first went to the post-season in 2012, as a 26-year-old sometimes catcher with a .687 OPS, doesn’t make that play. That Josh Donaldson was a very different man.

“In my first playoff experience with Oakland, I was out there and I was trying not to make mistakes. I didn’t want to go out there and make a mistake to hurt our team,” says Donaldson, on the eve of his new team’s first game vs. Cleveland in the ALCS. “Now, I understand from going through all of it that, hey, there’s going to be times when you’re going to make mistakes. But you still have to mentally be able to focus. And the way to do that is by relaxing and trusting in yourself.”

Donaldson trusted he was making the right call when he rounded third, saw Texas Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland drop the ball, and took off for home without looking back. He trusted his instincts were telling him the right thing to do. It sounds simple but it’s not as easy as you might think when so much is riding on those 90 feet and you have to make that decision in a split second. And it’s even harder when the easiest, most consequence-free, most above-criticism play to make is to anchor yourself to third base and transfer the pressure over to the next man up.

But that’s the easy way out. And when Donaldson stopped taking that easy route during his 2013 season with Oakland, locking himself in the video room to ruthlessly scrutinize and improve his swing, he made himself an MVP candidate at the age of 27. He changed the entire way he thought about the game; he started doing things differently than everyone else around him; he made himself millions. And that dash to home that won the ALDS was a microcosm of all that work.

“I feel like the instincts get taken away from players now. Whether it’s on defence, whether it’s base running, whatever it is,” Donaldson says. “When I was coming up, ever since I was very young, we were taught to be our own coach at some points. And there are still times when you’ve got to understand that.”

Game 3 of the ALDS was one of those times. As that 10th inning play unfolded, Donaldson made every decision himself without ever looking at his third base coach or listening to what was being yelled at him from his bench.

When the potential double play ball was hit to Elvis Andrus, Donaldson sprinted to his base with the intention of sliding in hard if the Rangers shortstop opted to take the force out at third. When he realized that wasn’t happening, he peeked over his shoulder and watched the play develop as he ran. His first concern was a throw behind him at third base. But as soon as Moreland dropped that ball, Donaldson didn’t hesitate. He took off for home without even seeing how far the ball strayed.

“The deciding factor for me was when I saw the ball hit the dirt. At that point, I knew I had to take the chance,” Donaldson says. “It happens very quickly. And you have to know yourself and know your ability. You have to be very quick when you’re making those decisions. And not just making a decision—making the right decision.”

It was the right decision. If it wasn’t, maybe the Blue Jays aren’t in Cleveland right now. But if Donaldson hesitates for even a moment, even a second to consider what he was doing, he could have been meat at home plate. The Donaldson that played in Oakland before he reinvented himself probably hesitates. That Donaldson doesn’t want to make a mistake.

“The longer that I’ve been in the game and played the game, the better understanding I have of what player I am and what I’m capable of doing,” Donaldson says. “In Oakland, I was still trying to find out exactly who I was as a player. But now I feel very confident and I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what I can and can’t do on the field.”

That understanding stretches further than you might think. As he rounded third, Donaldson’s mind flashed to the fact that Moreland was a pitcher in college. He remembered facing Moreland when he was pitching for Mississippi State and Donaldson was playing for Auburn. He thought about how the Rangers originally tried Moreland on the mound as a left-hander in instructional league games before settling on him as a first baseman.

“And he threw 94, 95 from the mound,” Donaldson says. “He’s got a really good arm for a first baseman over there.”

We’ll never understand what it’s like to be inside a ballplayers head during those crucial moments. You only know it if you’ve lived it. But the amount of information Donaldson was processing in that moment, and the blink-of-an-eye decision-making it took for him to score that run, tells you why not everyone is able to make something happen in situations like that.

“I think it’s different for every player,” Donaldson says. “I think, for some people, it gets a little cloudy because they don’t necessarily understand themselves. Or understand the situation of the game. That’s where the experience and everything plays in.”

Somehow, we’ve come this far and we haven’t talked about Donaldson’s hitting. Sure, he scored the most important run of the 786 the Blue Jays have plated this year. And he did it thanks to pure instinct and experience. But Donaldson has been nothing short of crucial to the Blue Jays’ success throughout this ALCS run for other reasons, too.

He has nine hits and a walk in his 19 plate appearances, and he’s come around to score in five of those 10 times he’s reached base. He’s also come up with a hit in each of the three times he’s stepped to the plate with runners in scoring position, and he’s gone 3-for-4 in the at-bats he’s taken late in close games.

Now, these are the smallest of small samples, but so too is the MLB post-season, which is a three-week sprint at the end of a six-month marathon. October is the one time when small samples can matter. The consequences of a good plate appearance or a bad one, a swing-and-miss or solid contact, a win or a loss, are that much more severe. And a hot hitter in the playoffs can have a trickle down effect.

“I think hitting is contagious,” Donaldson says. “The more quality at-bats you see going up and down your lineup, I think it rubs off on everybody.”

“Yeah, it happens,” says Jose Bautista. “You see guys grinding out at-bats, and making something good happen, whether it’s scorching a ball in the gap or getting a blooper, and it’s kind of like passing the baton. You feel a sense of responsibility to make something good happen for the team.”

Good things are happening for the Blue Jays whenever Donaldson is involved so far this October. Whatever physical ailments are limiting him—his hips, his back, his legs—haven’t stopped Donaldson from being the Blue Jays most important player to this point of the playoffs. That isn’t easy. But ever since he made a decision in Oakland years ago to learn more about himself as a ballplayer and what he needs to do to be successful, nothing has been.

“It’s tough. It’s a mental grind. It’s a physical grind. It’s one of those things where everything has to be sharp,” Donaldson says. “There isn’t another league that’s higher than this. So, in order to be able to compete at this level, you’re going to have to be able to bring that intensity, that focus, day in and day out. That’s what I try to do.”