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The Twins really need Byron Buxton to be the player they’ve always thought he could be

If the Twins are to contend, they need everything Buxton can give them, things he provided in flashes over parts of four injury-plagued seasons.

Byron Buxton
Center fielder Byron Buxton sliding into third base in the bottom of the sixth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Target Field on Thursday.
David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Before the Twins season opener on Thursday, Byron Buxton’s last at-bat at Target Field came last May 23, more than ten months and multiple frustrations ago. He did not need to be reminded of the date. “Oh, I know,” he said. “I’ve got that on a sheet of paper.”  

Interesting. So, Byron, what else you got on that sheet of paper? A telling quote from the general manager, maybe?

Whatever it is, he wouldn’t say. “There’s a lot,” he said.

Buxton spoke in the clubhouse after the Twins beat Cleveland 2-0, a game dominated by pitcher Jose Berrios, whose 10 strikeouts over 7 2/3 scoreless innings set a club record for a Opening Day starter. Following an injury-filled season that ended with him exiled to Class AAA Rochester, Buxton made a small contribution to the victory, breaking up Corey Kluber’s no-hitter with a ringing double in the sixth.

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Three Twins newcomers — Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Marwin Gonzalez — collaborated on a seventh-inning rally, with Gonzalez’s two-run double besting Kluber, a two-time Cy Young Award winner. The Twins are a trendy pick to steal the AL Central Division from the three-time defending champion Indians, and Berrios’ dominant performance gave that some credence, at least for one sunny afternoon.    

But if the Twins are to contend, they need everything Buxton can give them, things he provided  in flashes over parts of four injury-plagued seasons. Blinding speed. Gold Glove-caliber defense. And just enough hits to make his at-bats watchable.

“He’s one of the most dynamic players in baseball,” said new Twins manager Rocco Baldelli. “He doesn’t have to go out there and hit .300 or hit 35 home runs to do something like that. If he’s out there, he’s healthy, running around in center field doing his thing, getting on base, having good at-bats, that alone makes him an incredibly impactful, exceptional player for us, and someone other teams have to prepare for and take notice of what he can do. He affects the game in every way.”

Baldelli wasn’t around for the well-documented fiasco that was Buxton’s 2018 season. Migraines in April landed Buxton on the disabled list. Later that month, on a rehab assignment, he fouled a ball off his left big toe and broke it. He tried to be a tough guy and play through it, but it wrecked his timing, and he hit only .122 in 17 games with the Twins. Back on the DL he went, only to be optioned to Class AAA Rochester.

Disabled again in late July with a left wrist strain, Buxton expected to be recalled in September. He wasn’t, and general manager Thad Levine clumsily admitted the club took his service time into account, one of the dumber things a baseball executive can say and still keep his job. Meanwhile, rookie Jake Cave hit and fielded impressively in Buxton’s absence, batting .269 with 13 homers and 45 RBI.

By the end of the season Buxton was simmering. Baldelli, a first-time manager hired from Tampa Bay, is big on establishing relationships with players, so this winter he travelled to Georgia to meet with Buxton. The message was simple: Relax. Have fun. Be yourself.

From the Twins perspective, the rest of the winter and most of spring training has been one big make-up call toward Buxton, ensuring he felt wanted and appreciated. Baldelli named him the starting center fielder early in camp, and a more-buff Buxton started off like a machine, with three homers and 11 RBI the first three games. Abandoning his leg kick and keeping his lower body more still helped his timing. He finished the spring with four homers, a team-best 15 RBI and a .410 average.

“What we saw was a healthy Byron letting it loose, so to speak,” said Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey. “He looks like he’s playing with a confidence. Certainly he feels good. His swing is in a good place. We’re our best team when Byron is at his best.”

Still, Baldelli batted him ninth on Opening Day, and plans to leave him down there.

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“Byron is going to take advantage of what he can do regardless of where he hits in the lineup,” Baldelli said. “Byron is going to hit towards the bottom of the lineup, and it’s a pretty comfortable spot for a lot of reasons. Having the ability to have him in one of those spots, then immediately turn it over to the top of the lineup, is a pretty exciting prospect.”

Thursday, in a game that took a tidy 2 hours and 18 minutes, Kluber was dominant early, retiring 16 of the first 17 hitters (the one baserunner on a walk) before Buxton stepped up in the sixth. He knew Kluber had a no-hitter going. “That don’t scare me away, though,” he said. Buxton took a curve and a sinker, neither a strike, before pulling a cut fastball hard to left.

“I was looking for something over the plate that I could hit hard,” he said.

Buxton thought about going to third when the ball bounced away from left fielder Jake Bauers, but smartly reconsidered. He did use his speed to tag and go to third on Max Kepler’s deep fly to left, but the Twins couldn’t bring him around.

“That’s another thing,” he said. “With Rocco, he wants us to take those chances. The closer you get to home plate, the easier it is to score. I just try to put more pressure on them and put us in a better positions.”

That was Buxton’s only hit in three at-bats; he popped up the other two times. That he didn’t strike out was a plus, and encouraging. He fanned only five times in 44 spring plate appearances.

Buxton and Miguel Sano were supposed to be superstars by now, anchoring the middle of a dangerous lineup for a contending club. It hasn’t turned out that way, and the club’s biggest fear — that injuries or other factors might prevent them from fulfilling their outsized potential — remains real. The injured Sano isn’t expected back from his leg laceration until May. Until then, and after, the Twins need Buxton to be something close to the player they thought he could be. Baldelli hopes Thursday was a start.

“Buck put good swings on the ball today,” Baldelli said. “Even the balls he doesn’t put in play, the at-bats have been so good, from early spring training until now. I think he’s pretty locked in  and feeling good about the way he’s swinging. I know I’m very happy, and the staff is very happy with the way he’s looked.”