Who but Byron? Walk-off HR washes away tough week

July 2nd, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins have had an emotionally charged week, a week in which they lost their pitching coach and blew three late leads against the second-place team in the division. On Friday night at Target Field, they were hurtling toward another episode of malaise, of missed opportunity and of bullpen catastrophe.

Then, Byron Buxton seized the narrative with one big swing. It was everything the Twins needed.

Orioles closer Jorge López had not allowed a home run all season. Twenty-one straight Twins hitters had been retired entering the ninth inning. But after Luis Arraez finished a tough at-bat with a leadoff single to center, Buxton smashed a hanging slider into the left-field stands for a come-from-behind, walk-off, two-run blast that secured a 3-2 win -- and bashed away the possibility of another late-inning heartbreak.

“We’ve been waiting for something like that,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Someone has to go out and do it. And you know what? There’s no better guy than Buck.”

"Those are the kinds of games that flip the switch,” Carlos Correa said.

It’s one thing to talk about turning the page, flipping the switch, or whatever sports cliché gets dragged out to describe how a team needs to move forward from a brutal five-game set against the Guardians -- one described as the most “gut-wrenching” series in the career of Baldelli, who rarely -- if ever -- turns to that sort of vocabulary.

Flipping the switch looks like Buxton screaming his heart out as he turned his head up to the night sky while rounding first, flinging his helmet aside as he approached home plate and later receiving the first cooler bath of his life during his postgame interview. He’d never had that amount of liquid dumped on him in high school, the Minors or the Majors, he said, before Chris Archer got him with a deluge of ice water.

Flipping the switch also takes work. Buxton’s swing carried the night -- but behind that, there was a group effort that brought the center fielder’s second walk-off homer of the season and his 21st blast of the year, extending his career high.

During the eighth inning, Buxton gathered with Correa and hitting coach David Popkins to formulate a plan. They knew López would be trotting out of the Baltimore bullpen for the ninth inning. They wanted to be ready. Watching film and studying his tendencies, the trio realized that whatever damage they’d do against López, it would have to come to left-center field.

“The sinker, you can't try to filet it to right field,” Correa explained. “It's impossible. He throws it in, so you've got to turn those hips and try to clear that ball to left-center.”

They knew what they had to do. Arraez fired up the crowd and the dugout with the kind of at-bat that only the 25-year-old leadoff hitter can provide, a nine-pitch melee against López that finally ended with a single. Prior to that, the Twins hadn’t had a baserunner since the first inning.

When Buxton got to two strikes, López turned to his slider. The first one brushed Buxton back, up and in. The second one hung in the zone. It wasn’t even a full swing, Buxton said. He was swinging defensively, just trying to get bat to ball. But Buxton isn’t any ordinary player -- and he acknowledged as much when asked how often those sorts of contact swings still lead to homers.

“Quite a bit,” Buxton said. “It’s the times when I’m trying to do it that I’m not so good, you know. Starting to find it a little bit better.”

It helped that Buxton knew exactly where he wanted to hit it -- on a line to left-center field. Just like he, Correa and Popkins had planned. It happened to settle 399 feet away in the bleachers.

“Buck got a good pitch to hit,” Correa said. “He was able to drive it to where they do damage against him. If he doesn't know that information, he's trying to go the other way, and it's a lazy popup. But instead, it's a homer, because he knew that all the damage was to left-center."

“The majority of those guys would probably roll that over for a double play, but Buxton put a good swing on it,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said.

The Twins maintained confidence through their recent slump because they knew they had this sort of talent and teamwork in their clubhouse. This is what it looks like when it all goes right -- and they’re counting on having far more of these ups than the downs they’re working to put behind them.

It helps when they have Buxton, too.

“It’s a phenomenal player making a phenomenal move out there on the field and taking the game over and winning the game for us,” Baldelli said.