FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Byron Buxton watched right-hander Bailey Ober throw several warm-up pitches from behind a screen before he slowly strode to the plate and settled into his upright batting stance with the high back elbow. He took the first pitch before he raised the bat once more.
Thwack. The ball soared on a line to right-center field and settled on the outfield grass a few feet shy of the warning track, and Buxton was officially one step closer to taking the field.
While manager Rocco Baldelli took a motley crew of mostly prospects on the long bus ride up to Clearwater for a 5-1 loss to the Phillies on Tuesday, the real work of the day was done on the home front, where Buxton took his long-awaited first live batting practice session, considered his final hurdle before he could begin to see action in spring games.
"If I swing and miss, it’s fine, too," Buxton said. "It's the first day, so I was just up there, basically looking at pitches, trying to swing at good pitches, seeing how the arm feels. Felt pretty good, so take the positive side out of it: [I] put the ball in play a little bit.
"It’s a good day all around."
Hitting in a group with Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver and Marwin Gonzalez, the Twins' center fielder saw 16 pitches in all -- four apiece from Homer Bailey and Minor League pitchers Ober, Bryan Sammons and Lachlan Wells.
Buxton put four balls in play -- line drives to right-center, left and right, along with a grounder to third -- along with a foul ball, a swing and miss, and a check swing. The 26-year-old said after the session that his left shoulder, still on the mend from surgery to repair a torn labrum in September, felt fine even with the added stress of the swinging strike and check swing.
"Not too bad," Buxton said. "It's one of those things where you're still working through it and still rehabbing, so keep pushing through it each and every day."
The real test, though, could come Wednesday, when Buxton doesn't expect to swing as he waits to see how his shoulder will react to the stress of facing live pitching. Buxton said that he had only hit against velocity for the first time Monday, when he faced a machine.
If his shoulder responds well, Buxton said he planned to hit live batting practice again Thursday and Friday. He said he's been medically cleared to do all baseball activities, so his hitting progress is the final piece of the puzzle as he builds for the regular season.
With two weeks remaining in Spring Training, there's still a conceivable timeline for Buxton to ramp up for Opening Day. If he responds well to the batting practice, for example, there could be time for him to see action in five or so spring games as the Twins evaluate his readiness for March 26 in Oakland.
Though Buxton and the Twins have maintained all spring that Opening Day has been the target for the center fielder's recovery, it's a much higher priority for them that Buxton is back to his normal self. So they'll continue to take things day by day -- and if that leads to an Opening Day timeline, great. If not, Buxton is also fine with that.
"I'm not going to speed up any process," Buxton said. "They wouldn’t want me to come back at 85-90 percent. ... Obviously, everybody knows where I'm at. Obviously, I want to make Opening Day. But if the situation isn't here, it's not here. Keep doing what I'm doing, keep working hard, and go from there."
"I think we've all said and maintained that Byron has continued to feel better than, maybe, where he is in his timeline, because we're just being probably a little conservative in the way we're approaching it," chief baseball officer Derek Falvey added. "We just want to make sure that he's checking all the right boxes. He feels good. We'll have a much better sense of that, probably, in the next week."