Buxton joins Cruz, Killebrew on elite list

June 29th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- doesn’t like to look at his stats.

He freely acknowledges that he doesn’t even know how many career home runs he has. He did know, however, that he set a new career high in home runs Tuesday night with his 20th of the season, a solo shot in the ninth inning of the Twins’ 6-0 victory over the Guardians that secured a split of the doubleheader at Progressive Field.

“At some point, I was going to hit 20,” Buxton said. “It took longer than what I expected, but it’s cool. It’s a great accomplishment, but for me, as long as we’re winning, staying in first and controlling our destiny, that’s kind of my bigger picture and everything else is kind of a plus for me.”

But clearly, here’s something he didn’t know: Buxton now has 52 home runs in his last 162 games, the most in franchise history in such a span by any player not named Harmon Killebrew or Nelson Cruz.

When presented with that fact after the game, a grin spread across Buxton’s face as he interjected, “Dang!”

“That’s surprising to me,” Buxton said. “Yeah, that’s kind of dope, I ain’t going to lie about that one. … Granted, it’s 162 games not all together, but just to see what could possibly happen in a 162-game season, it’s fun. That kind of got me. That kind of got me going now. That kind of got me going. I’m a little itchy now.”

As Buxton acknowledged, the telling catch is that the 162-game span dates back to Sept. 1, 2019, and the baseball world is “itchy,” too, to see what Buxton could do with consistent health. This year, he’ll have a chance to continue his progress toward that kind of season, as he has yet to land on the injured list despite chronic tendinitis in his right knee and has played in 74 percent of the team’s games (57 of 77 this season).

The 2022 campaign won’t be that fully realized season, as it looks like the knee will be something the Twins and Buxton will have to manage together through the end of the year. That’s evidenced by a recent two-game span he missed from June 22-23 when the pain flared up on him. But it’s a meaningful step.

The Twins’ careful plan for Buxton’s usage involving treatment and occasional maintenance days has, significantly, helped him avoid the injured list altogether this season, and he’s still on pace to play 120 games. Even that kind of usage has brought him to this career-best, surpassing the 19 homers he hit in 61 games last season. It’s still only June 28.

The only time Buxton played more than 100 games in his career was 2017, when he played 140 games. At that point, he wasn’t even this homer-hitting, power-speed monster. He was still worth 4.9 WAR that season, per Baseball-Reference. This version of him was worth 4.5 WAR in 61 games last year.

“We're a different team,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Whatever we bring to the table, we bring more to the table when Byron Buxton is playing. Has he been out there every day? No, he has not been out there every day. But he's been out there a lot and he's gotten a lot of at-bats. They've been really productive. He figures things out really quick. You see the adjustments he makes out there. Even when he's not 100 percent, he's a star.”

Health is everything, as evidenced by what Buxton has been able to do this season -- and even on a more localized note by the fact that a pair of returnees from the injured list played a massive role in the Twins’ victory on Tuesday night following a quick turnaround from a 3-2 loss in the day game.

Jorge Polanco went 2-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs in his first game in the lineup following his recovery from a sore back, while Josh Winder returned from a shoulder injury with six shutout frames.

But the effort was capped by another big Buxton blast -- and sometimes, he, too, can’t help but take a step back and be impressed by his results. Only when someone tells him, that is.

“That kind of impressed me a little bit,” Buxton said. “To have that many over a span of 162 games, something must be clicking as far as more on the mental side, like my approach, my aggressiveness, just keeping the game simple.”