ARLINGTON -- At last, Byron Buxton is back in a Twins uniform.
Minnesota activated its center fielder from the 10-day injured list before Saturday's 3-2 win against the Rangers following his recovery from a right hip strain, marking the most significant return among the laundry list of injured players that have recently returned to the field. He made an immediate impact by legging out an infield single and forcing an error with his speed.
And even with a sprint speed of 31.2 ft/sec on that infield hit -- far in excess of the 30 ft/sec threshold to be considered elite -- there's still more in the tank.
"You're going to know when I’m healthy, trust me," Buxton said. "I’m healthy now, but we’ve got little cute things to worry about and you know, I don’t want to go back on the bench."
On defense, too, Buxton's impact was felt on the final play of the game, when Eli White lifted a fly ball deep to the gap in right-center but Buxton was able to easily roam over to close out the one-run victory.
"They hit a fly ball and you see, 'Oh, Buxton is there. OK, the game is over,'" Nelson Cruz said. "It doesn't matter where the ball is hit. He will find a way to catch the ball. It's definitely a relief when you have the best center fielder in the league playing behind you."
Buxton was an early MVP candidate and won the American League Player of the Month for April after he posted a .370/.408/.772 line with nine homers and 10 doubles through 24 games before he went on the IL on May 7 due to the injury sustained while running to first base.
"Buck says he’s feeling great," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "He’s able to run. He’s able to do all the things he needs to do. He’s obviously played already, and now, he’s gone through several baseball workouts. So this is a day that I know Buck’s been waiting for -- that we’ve been waiting for -- and we’re going to have him out there."
Buxton didn't have the smoothest path back to the field after feeling additional tightness in his hip during his three-game rehab assignment with Triple-A St. Paul last week, but additional days of workouts during this road trip through Seattle and Texas, along with another MRI on Thursday and an additional opinion with Rangers team physician Dr. Keith Meister, finally got Buxton into a position where the Twins were comfortable putting him back on the diamond.
The other issue? Though Buxton was quite antsy to get back to the field and went 5-for-9 with two homers, a double and a triple during his rehab assignment, he said after his first rehab game that he still didn't feel totally comfortable at the plate following more than a month away from the batter's box.
But considering Buxton's talent and track record, Minnesota is fine with that.
"He could feel off in his head and still be probably hitting balls hard and getting a bunch of hits," Baldelli said. "He could probably play 10 rehab games and still not quite get that feeling of being completely game-ready. There's probably no better way to get your timing back than to get back into Major League games."
Astudillo optioned in 'not the easiest move'
Thanks to his bright personality and ability to put smiles on faces throughout the dugout, Willians Astudillo's value to the Twins goes far beyond his ability to play catcher, infield and corner outfield in a pinch.
But with the current state of the Twins' roster, Astudillo ended up the odd man out and was optioned to Triple-A St. Paul in the corresponding move for Buxton's activation.
"He's the lifeblood of a lot of what happens and brings so much energy into the ballpark every day, whether he's playing or not playing," Baldelli said. "He does a lot of things for us. That's not the easiest move to be making, but it's a move that we were kind of forced into making right now."
And even as more outfielders get healthy, the Twins faced a roster crunch because Gordon (.325 average, .766 OPS) and Trevor Larnach (.375 on-base percentage, .810 OPS) have played well enough to force the Twins' hand in keeping them on the roster for the time being. Neither was expected to be this significant of a contributor in the Majors this quickly, but both have proved valuable pieces of the big league team -- and Minnesota has adjusted accordingly.
"We have a lot of good, young players, guys we're giving opportunities and at-bats to, and they're earning them," Baldelli said. "They're going out there and producing and working hard every day, and you want to continue to be able to give those guys the at-bats. All of those reasons are kind of why we had to do what we did today."