BALTIMORE – The ball beat him.
That’s how precarious Byron Buxton’s stolen-base streak is. Buxton’s speed may seem supernatural, may give him an aura of invincibility on the bases, but during the fifth inning of the Twins’ 3-2 loss to the Orioles on Thursday, pitcher Dylan Bundy and catcher Caleb Joseph got the baseball to shortstop Manny Machado before Buxton could reach second base.
Of course, Buxton’s speed adds significant pressure to the defense to be perfect, and the Orioles were not. Joseph’s throw bounced in the dirt about a foot in front of Machado’s glove, and it ricocheted off his thumb and past him, allowing Buxton to slide safely into second base, his first stolen base of the season — and more notably, his 25th consecutive successful attempt.
The play means Buxton is now halfway to the major league record for consecutive steals — Vince Coleman’s run of 50 in a row for the Cardinals in 1988-89 remains the all-time standard — but it also illustrates why the young Twins speedster isn’t placing much importance on remaining perfect.
“I don’t, not really. I’m just kind of going out and doing my thing, and not focus on” the streak, Buxton said. “Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes not. If I’ve got a good feeling about it, I’ll steal, and if I get thrown out, I get thrown out.”
It’s been nearly a year since it actually happened, and it was in this same ballpark, Camden Yards. Dylan Bundy was on the mound then, too, and Wellington Castro’s throw seemed to arrive simultaneously with Buxton’s hand, one of those plays that would have been difficult to determine, even on replay, whether second-base umpire Stu Scheurwater’s ruling was correct. But Buxton made it easy on Scheurwater by sliding past the bag, too far to reach anything but shortstop J.J. Hardy’s shoe before he was tagged out.
Had he been safe, Buxton could have finished the 2017 season 30-for-30 on the bases, shattering Chase Utley’s 23-for-23 season in 2009 as the greatest without being caught, at least since caught-stealing became an official statistic in 1951. And his consecutive-steal streak would now number 32 in a row — or just four shy of his manager’s best run.
“I obviously didn’t have his speed,” said Paul Molitor, whose remarkable 36 consecutive steals stretched from 1993 to 1996, ending when he was just four months short of his 40th birthday. “We’ve said for a long time, you don’t have to have great speed to be a good baserunner.”
Buxton, though wants both, and he believes 2018 could be a breakthrough season. He has his eye on other records, in other words.
“I want to get 50 bases. That’s my biggest [goal] for this year — I’m definitely going to go more,” Buxton said. “If I can get 50, that helps the team. It’s how I can help — get on base, get in scoring position.”
Molitor likes the sentiment, if not necessarily putting a number on it. “I wasn’t a real big numbers person. When you’re young, you think about that,” Molitor said of his 24-year-old center fielder. “You get asked about it, you’re more apt to talk about it, before you realize that if you play 150 games, some of those things are going happen. It’s about trying to keep yourself on the field.”
Buxton is aware of that, and said he’s helped by the fact that he was able to use spring training to prepare himself for the season and refine his technique and study of pitchers, rather than stress over making the team. “I was maybe a little bit more at ease. I didn’t have to do this or that, in order to impress them, I guess,” he said. “I could work on my game.”
Fifty steals, though less than half of Rickey Henderson’s MLB record of 130, is rarefied air for the Twins. Only Chuck Knoblauch, with 62 steals in 72 tries during the 1997 season, has ever eclipsed that number. Knoblauch had a .390 on-base percentage that season, too.
“Is he going to hit .230 or .290? How many chances is he going to have? All those things will play into it,” Molitor said. “We’ve seen a more aggressive Buxton when he has opportunities. A lot of confidence, better technique, more mindful of being observant [of pitchers] to gain an edge — all those kind of things.”
MOST CONSECUTIVE STOLEN BASES IN BASEBALL HISTORY
50 Vince Coleman, St. Louis 1988-89
45 Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle 2006-07
40 Tim Raines, Chicago White Sox 1993-95
39 Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia 2007-08
38 Davey Lopes, L.A. Dodgers 1975
37 Stan Javier, Oakland-San Francisco 1995-96
36 Tim Raines, Montreal 1983-84
36 Paul Molitor, Toronto 1993-95
MOST STOLEN BASES BY A TWINS PLAYER, SINGLE SEASON
62 Chuck Knoblauch, 1997
49 Rod Carew, 1976
46 Chuck Knoblauch, 1995
45 Chuck Knoblauch, 1996
45 Cesar Tovar, 1969
41 Rod Carew, 1973
40 Ben Revere, 2012