'Yeah, that was fun': After 554 days away, Buxton returns to center field

February 27th, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When that first fly ball finally came, it went over 's head as he gave chase into the gap in right-center field. And at first, it looked like the 554 days of rust were showing a bit as he corralled the ball on a short hop at the warning track and made a spinning, off-balance throw back to the infield.

It wasn't rust, though -- it was just Buxton playing smart now that he’s back out there and getting his bearings again.

“I have a chance at all of them,” Buxton said immediately. “I’m not going to dive in Spring Training. But yeah, that was fun.”

The Twins and Buxton certainly hope the time will come when none of this has to be a spectacle, that their center fielder playing, well, center field, will be the norm. But that hasn’t been the case with any consistency over a full season since 2017, so he’ll need to prove that can be the case -- and that started in his Grapefruit League debut in Tuesday’s 3-3 tie against the Phillies.

It marked the first time Buxton appeared in center field in a Twins uniform in any capacity -- Spring Training or regular season -- since Aug. 22, 2022.

“Everything physically that we could ask for at this point, we’re getting from him,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “His body is responding really well. It’s been a very positive camp, and he just looks different than almost everyone else the way he plays the game and the way his body moves. He looks strong and looks explosive right now. Good day for him and a good day for all of us.”

With that said, perhaps outfield coach Tommy Watkins was concerned Buxton wasn’t having a good day, because he held his center fielder back before the fourth inning as Buxton ran out to field his position -- to ask if Buxton was upset that he didn’t catch that Turner double.

“You walked in like you were mad you didn’t catch it,” he told Buxton.

“No, no, I was just getting a better gauge at it,” Buxton said after the game. “Like, in that situation, I would have dove. In my head, just thinking through the process and the scenario of what would have happened. Obviously, I know right now that probably would have [given] them fits if I would have dove.”

That was the only real opportunity Buxton got to track a fly ball as he played four innings in the field and went 0-for-2 with a flyout to right and a strikeout looking in his two plate appearances, hitting ahead of Carlos Correa -- also making his spring debut -- and Royce Lewis for a very Opening Day-like trip through the heart of the order.

He certainly tried to get back out there last fall, when he hoped to show the Twins he could track fly balls and contribute to the playoff roster even while his right knee felt like it was being stabbed by a knife, as he described it earlier this spring. He played seven innings of center for Triple-A St. Paul on Aug. 30, but it led to another setback.

But now, with the opportunity to have a largely normal spring, Buxton says he just has to feel out the mentality of those split-second decisions, those reads, and make the most of these spring opportunities to visualize these plays again to re-acclimate to his position.

“Just a little bit, like balls off the bat,” Buxton said. “Footwork-wise, just making sure your first quick step [is] not getting too big or too short. Just little things like that, that give you that edge to, maybe, the ball that wasn’t supposed to be caught, you get a good jump on it and it’s catchable now.”

Baldelli said that Buxton and Correa will get a few days out of game action before returning for more regular appearances in the lineup. And though the Twins will pay attention to Buxton, the skipper said they plan to “treat him like one of our players in camp.”

As for Buxton? He’s just happy to get his work done -- and he’ll just play in games when they tell him he’s penciled in.

“I ain’t even asked,” Buxton said. “I just want to go with the flow. If I’m in, I’m happy. If I’m not, I’m on the back fields hitting. I’ll still be able to get my work in either way.

“But for sure, definitely playing a lot more games this year.”