Ailing Buxton gets ovation in lone Game 4 at-bat

October 12th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- It was clear that Byron Buxton was still limited in what he could do for Minnesota, but with the Twins’ backs against the wall, they hoped for a Kirk Gibson moment from their ailing star on Wednesday night.

Buxton willed his body back for one final plate appearance in Minnesota’s season-ending 3-2 loss to the Astros in Game 4 of the American League Division Series. When Buxton was announced as a pinch-hitter in the eighth, Target Field roared as loudly as it had for anything -- or anyone -- all season. He had to take a step back and soak it in.

He popped out to first base, and his first appearance since Aug. 1 was ultimately a footnote in the box score that Twins fans will hope to forget quickly. But Buxton won’t be looking to forget that moment anytime soon.

“That means the world,” Buxton said. “For me, it was all about just trying to keep that moment and cherish that moment.”

The Twins added Buxton to their ALDS roster ahead of their must-win Game 4 against the Astros, marking the first time Buxton had been active since Aug. 1. He took the roster spot of Alex Kirilloff, who went to the IL with a worsening of the right shoulder issue that cost him 34 games late in the regular season.

As is the case with any roster substitution in the postseason, Kirilloff’s IL placement was made with approval from the Commissioner’s Office, with confirmation of the injury from Dr. Gary Green, MLB’s medical director, upon consultation with the evaluating physician.

“It's just progressively been getting worse to the point where he really can't swing at this point,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We got him back to a reasonably good spot. He was never back to anything I would call 100 percent or close to it, but he got back to a point where he could swing, but we had to keep his workload light.”

Kirilloff had been 0-for-9 with two walks and four strikeouts this postseason, and his inability to corral a Yordan Alvarez ground ball in the first inning of Game 3 loomed large in the Astros’ four-run first inning to prime Minnesota’s 9-1 blowout loss. He was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the sixth.

Clearly, Buxton was still not at full health as he attempted to work back from the lingering right knee pain that has limited him since the beginning of the 2022 regular season -- otherwise, he’d have been on Minnesota’s ALDS roster in the first place. Even upon his return, he wasn’t in the Twins’ starting lineup for Game 4.

He initially went to the IL for a right hamstring strain in August but had to halt his rehab assignment in early September with continued right knee pain, diagnosed as inflammation and irritation in the medial plica (a membrane flap) in his right knee.

He returned for two more rehab games with Triple-A St. Paul at the end of September and has been taking live batting practice on the side as part of Minnesota’s postseason travel party. The hope in limiting Buxton to DH-only duties at the start of the season was that the knee would improve in time for a more prominent look down the stretch -- but it never did, and his performance suffered for it, as he hit .207/.294/.438 with 17 homers in 85 games.

“Anyone that's followed our team knows what he's gone through this year,” Baldelli said.

Before the game, Baldelli didn’t detail the exact circumstances in which Buxton would be available, but the equation was simple. The club could have activated Trevor Larnach instead, and Baldelli indicated that the young left-handed outfielder was also an option.

Buxton said after the game that he was available to hit or to run -- but not to play the field.

“I was available for just about everything but that,” Buxton said. “Got to pick and choose. Just one of those things where, like I said, whatever they needed me to do, I would have been there, but I knew what I was capable of doing to put ourselves in a good position and not hurt us as well.”

But the Twins needed big things to win consecutive do-or-die games against the defending World Series champions and save their season. Even in a limited capacity, they believed Buxton was capable of those special moments.

“I think Buck gives us some kind of an alternate look and an alternate explosive option that he can go out there in certain spots and do big things,” Baldelli said. “So that's really -- that's it. That's really all it comes down to. It's not that much more complex. He's a different kind of player capable of different things.”

The circumstances might not look exactly how Buxton would have hoped, but he did get his chance at helping his teammates when they needed him most.

That didn’t end the way he’d hoped either, but he just appreciated getting his chance to be even a small part of this team’s magical run.

“It's been a while,” Buxton said. “Just to be able to get in the batter's box, it definitely gave me chills. Definitely gave me chills.”