'Star' Buxton tees off on Tigers with two HRs

October 1st, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- When a Twins player homers at Target Field, the large array of powerful stadium lights above the left-field scoreboard starts flashing until that player finishes rounding the bases. This time, even after had long since completed his trot around the bases and returned to the dugout in the seventh inning, three of those lights just kept going for the remainder of the half-inning.

Some sort of malfunction? Probably. But their continued flashing over the ballpark served as a lingering reminder of Buxton’s game-changing talent. It's particularly meaningful in this home finale at Target Field, ahead of an offseason in which Buxton's future with the Twins will serve as one of the club’s defining questions.

Could this have been Buxton’s final time playing in front of this Minnesota crowd? It’s anybody’s guess. But whether with the clouds of dust as he slid into second base on steals and a game-changing catch at the center-field wall earlier in the series or with the pair of no-doubt homers that twice gave Minnesota the lead over the Tigers in an eventual 10-7 loss on Thursday night, he left little doubt, one more time, that he can impact baseball games in ways that few players ever have for this organization when healthy.

"He looks on fire right now,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He just looks great right now and I think he's a very dangerous at-bat regardless of whatever pitcher he's facing."

Hitting leadoff against Tigers left-hander Tarik Skubal, Buxton swatted the third pitch he saw into the upper deck in left field, a Statcast-projected 426 feet away, to set a new career-high with his 17th homer of the year. That mark stood for just over two hours before he crushed a Kyle Funkhouser sinker into the left-center field bullpen in the seventh inning, putting Minnesota on top, 7-6, and sending the stadium lights into disarray. He added a ninth-inning double to notch his fifth career game with three extra-base hits, while Josh Donaldson and Brent Rooker also went deep.

And while this might have been his most power-packed performance, the whole series has really been a three-episode serial of "The Buxton Show."

He reached base twice on Tuesday, and on one of those occasions stole second before moving to third, and then home, on a pair of shallow fly balls that would have offered few others the chances to tag up. He reached base twice more on Wednesday and swiped another bag, moving into second place in stolen-base percentage in AL/NL history among all baserunners with at least 80 career steal attempts. He made a leaping snag at the center-field wall to rob Eric Haase of a would-be home run in that game for good measure.

“He's got it all going again,” Baldelli aded. “If you got a chance to watch this series, you walked away watching a really great player.”

And don’t forget that the now-career-high 18 homers have come in only 58 games, as compared to the 140 games required for his previous career-best of 16, set during the 2017 season. He’s come a long way as a hitter in that time, adding average, aggression and plenty of power to his bat to complement his exemplary defense and baserunning skills.

Put his contributions this way: Per both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, Buxton has been the Twins’ second-most valuable player this season despite playing little over a third of the season. Since the start of 2019, the Twins are 116-68 (.630) when Buxton plays and 92-105 (.467) when he doesn’t.

"He's a star and he plays like it,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “He carries himself that way. Every at-bat has energy to it. He can change the game at a moment's notice. He doesn't get near the credit he deserves because he hasn't been able to stay on the field as much as some of the other stars around the league, but players, coaches, managers, we know how impactful he is. He's scary when he's in the lineup.”

It’s undeniable that the Twins are a better team with Buxton on the roster. It’s also undeniable that it’ll cost them a good amount to ink him to a contract extension this offseason and keep him from hitting free agency. It's a considerable risk for the club considering Buxton’s extensive and well-documented injury history, but also carries immense sky-high upside.

The sides couldn’t come to such an agreement before the July 30 Trade Deadline, and with a year to go before Buxton hits free agency, this offseason might present a decision point as to whether the sides can agree on an extension or the Twins try to shop Buxton to recoup a full season’s worth of trade value.

“We've never hid the act that we've had some of those conversations with Byron and his agents,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. “I fully anticipate that we'll have further conversations with them this offseason, both around the arbitration contract and, ultimately, doing a deep dive again about what it looks like in the future."

The question of that future now looms larger than ever.