Buxton launches moonshot; bullpen brings Twins back to earth

April 10th, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- Saturday showed exactly why the Twins paid . Will they have the pitching to take advantage of their center fielder’s star power?

So many times in 2020 and ‘21, the Twins saw Buxton’s ability to impact any baseball game with one big swing, one big catch, one mad dash. So, with Minnesota’s offense languishing against Mariners pitching to open ‘22, leave it to the newly extended center fielder to finally pack the needed punch with a go-ahead, two-run blast to the third deck in the eighth inning.

But that excitement was short-lived as a bullpen now lacking the ninth-inning reliability of Taylor Rogers couldn’t hold the lead, with a pair of two-out Mariners knocks off Tyler Duffey in the ninth sending Minnesota to a 4-3 loss at Target Field.

“[That's] the kind of moment that we're going to see a lot from him,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “That's enormous -- just a big swing at a time when we needed it.”

Sixteen consecutive Twins hitters had been retired entering the eighth inning, when Nick Gordon drew a leadoff walk and Buxton stepped in against hard-throwing right-hander Andrés Muñoz.

Though Buxton has been a fastball hitter throughout his career, this might not have been the best matchup for him. Buxton had been 0-for-6 with a hit-by-pitch to begin the season, and he admitted that he’s felt late in his timing so far this season -- and Muñoz averaged 99.6 mph with his heater in ‘21.

Indeed, Buxton got a first-pitch fastball at the letters at 100.5 mph. But he’d done his homework. He’d visualized this. He was ready.

“He throws a lot of fastballs up in the zone, so for me, it was kind of, if I want to swing at that, make sure I'm on time -- be early,” Buxton said. “He threw it to the spot. I beat him to the spot and I put a good swing on it."

Buxton unloaded with that tight, compact swing. The ball exploded off the bat at 112.3 mph, the second-hardest blast of his career. As it soared an estimated 436 feet into the left-field nosebleeds, Buxton turned to his dugout, sent his bat whirling and roared in triumph.

“You don't even feel it come off the bat,” Buxton said. “Once I hit it, I knew it was gone. So the emotions of just trying to get us going, the momentum, that kind of took over. Honestly, I don't even remember what I did. … That's how much emotion you've got in the moment.”

It’s rare for Buxton to touch that kind of heat, let alone send it into the stratosphere. The last time he’d hit a ball at 98 mph or harder for a base hit was back in 2015. He’d never hit a pitch in the triple-digits for a homer; the hardest pitch he’d previously hit out of the ballpark clocked in at 96.6.

His ability to turn on that ball simply stunned the Mariners.

"I couldn't believe it,” Seattle catcher Tom Murphy said. “I really couldn't believe it. Like, I was looking for a popup for half a second before I saw the trajectory of the ball, and it's just insane that somebody can do that to a baseball at 101 mph on the first pitch he sees from a guy.”

“My thought was that it was going to land in Wisconsin,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “That was a bomb."

That’s the kind of talent that drew superstar Carlos Correa to this team this offseason -- and the kind of talent he sees as the unquestioned focal point of these Twins.

“It's not my team -- it's Byron's team,” Correa said before the season began. “He's been the guy who's been around for so long. He's the guy that's led these guys to multiple playoff seasons. I believe in his talent and his leadership. This is his team.”

The Twins still have plenty to figure out, considering the first save opportunity in the post-Rogers era ended poorly with this blown lead and loss. Whoever emerges from that competition as the Twins feel out the back of their bullpen, whether it’s Duffey, or , will have more opportunities to shut the door if Buxton keeps swinging like he can -- and he has no intentions of stopping.

"Confident; very relaxed,” Buxton said. “Confident that I'm the best player in that batter's box. When you've got that attitude and you get in there, it's hard to beat you.”