Healthy Buxton's highlight-reel grab a welcome return to normal

April 17th, 2024

BALTIMORE -- dazzling with a highlight-reel grab at the center-field wall is a familiar -- and welcome -- sight to the baseball world, and it’s far from the first time since he’s made this kind of robbery.

But the snag he made to deprive Ryan O’Hearn of extra bases on Tuesday night did look subtly different -- and in an encouraging way.

Back in center where he belongs, Buxton did what he does best in the sixth inning, when he chased the deep fly ball as it soared toward the center-field wall. As he felt the warning track beneath his feet, Buxton leaped with his glove outstretched and, crucially, with his right leg (and surgically repaired knee) also extended away from the wall as the collision occurred.

It wasn’t intentional, Buxton said, but he certainly agreed it’s a good thing for his body to have naturally done as he made the play in the Twins’ 11-3 loss to the Orioles at Camden Yards -- because if Minnesota is going to turn this season around, it will need more of these heroics from him.

“It was just kind of instinctual,” Buxton said. “Now that you told me, I’m going to look at it. I didn’t even think about that. I guess it’s just a way for my body to protect me against what I’m going into.”

Clearly, the Twins are in survival mode until they get their two missing stars (Carlos Correa and Royce Lewis) back from the injured list -- but the one they still have on the field is back to shining on the highlight reels, even in a game in which the club was out of contention very early, down 7-0 after three innings en route to its blowout loss.

At the time Buxton took flight, the Twins were trailing, 8-2. Some might argue that’s a time when Buxton should save himself -- but he felt otherwise as he tracked the ball 51 feet to the wall in 5.6 seconds.

“Even though we're down big in that situation, you've still got to go out there and compete and put up that effort,” Buxton said. “I don't want my teammates to say I gave up on that ball when I could have had a chance at it.”

“He’s never going to slow down or take the easy road or way through a game,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He plays the game to win.”

Given the amount of time Buxton missed in center field after being held to DH all last season due to the troublesome right knee, all of these reps matter to lock in those instincts. Perhaps this rep will help Buxton continue to refine for another opportunity in a closer game.

There’s relief -- and some welcome sense of normalcy again -- as Buxton is reminded that his body can still handle this.

“It gives me back that confidence not to, I guess, worry,” he said.

It also helped that Buxton hit the ball hard in the fourth inning and got to run for a long while for his first triple of the season. Considering his well-established speed, it’s almost crazy to think that it had been so long since Buxton last coasted into third base -- and he was well aware of that when he was asked if he remembered when that last triple had been.

“I was about to be funny and say, ‘Probably my first hit in my career,’” Buxton said with a smile. “That’s what it feels like. I have zero clue. It was probably about three years.”

It was only last year, actually, on Opening Day in Kansas City on March 30, 2023, still a very long time ago.

Not only was this one a triple, but it went to left field, too -- a Buxton special.

“That did make me feel a little bit normal,” Buxton said. “That felt good.”

What didn’t feel good was the rest of Tuesday’s game, in which Chris Paddack set a career high by allowing nine earned runs as the Twins dropped a third straight. But using this time to help Buxton keep figuring it out at the plate could help, and his defense clearly hasn’t faltered.

“To have that behind me out there in center field knowing he's going to make those plays no matter what the score is,” Paddack said. ‘“He's a very special player, and I'm glad he's behind me out there in center field.”