All-Star trip for Buxton a big step for Twins center fielder

Published 4:50 am Thursday, July 21, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS — The soaring home run Byron Buxton hit in the All-Star game served as the winning run for the AL team and another signature moment in an uneven career for Minnesota’s multi-skilled center fielder.

Just being there was the bigger deal.

Buxton’s first appearance at baseball’s midsummer showcase probably meant as much to him as any player ever selected, given how early struggles and untimely injuries prolonged the wait until his eighth major league season. Appearing in 73 of 94 games for the Twins before the break while avoiding the injured list was a significant step forward for the 28-year-old.

“I know what I’m capable of doing. Just staying on the field is the biggest situation,” Buxton said last week before leaving for Los Angeles, where he starred for the AL squad on Tuesday night.

When Buxton hurt his right knee on April 15 and missed five games in a row, his outlook for a healthy season was considerably dimmed. As the soreness and swelling persisted, the Twins carefully scheduled days off. Having Buxton in the lineup for two-thirds of the time, they figured, was better than an aggravation and a subsequent month-long absence.

“It’s been a strenuous, truly 24-hour-a-day job for him to take the field each day,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s not looking for any breaks right now. He’s trying to take the field.”

Buxton is batting only .161 in July, with 23 strikeouts in 61 plate appearances. Playing in 14 of 15 games this month is the more important number for the Twins, particularly considering his career-high 23 home runs and Gold Glove-caliber defense in center. He’s on pace for 126 games, which would be the most for him since 2017.

“Buck’s doing pretty well, but it’s still going to be something we’re going to have to pay attention to going forward,” Baldelli said. “If there’s 12 days, 14 days in a row? At this point, he’s going to play most of those games. I don’t think he’s playing all those days if there’s no days off built in.”

The Twins, who have a two-game lead in the AL Central on Cleveland and a three-game edge over Chicago, will need Buxton as much as possible to stay in front.

“You just make sure you’re being smart and being the best person you can be to give your best version that you can, day in and day out,” said Buxton, who signed a seven-year, $100 million contract last December. “Days are good, days are bad, but each and every day for me is a good opportunity to try and get a win for my teammates.”

When Baldelli announced to the Twins earlier this month that Buxton and first baseman Luis Arraez had been named to the All-Star team, the sense of accomplishment after all the setbacks he’s endured caused Buxton to choke up a bit in the moment.

Having his family accompany him to Los Angeles to soak up the festivities was another experience to treasure, particularly his father, Felton Buxton.

When Buxton celebrates a home run or a clutch hit with his teammates, he pumps his arm up and down the way a kid will signal to a truck driver to sound the horn. That’s an ode to his father’s occupation and a nod to the memory of making that same motion to his dad when he pulled up to their home in rural southwest Georgia at the end of the work day.

Felton Buxton giddily told his son last week he was taking a dozen baseballs to Los Angeles for signatures from the stars.

“He’s excited,” Buxton said. “For me, that’s what makes me happy. That’s all that matters.”