Nelson Cruz ripped a Randy Dobnak pitch on the barrel of the bat Wednesday during the Twins’ first intrasquad game of the summer, and sent a drive zooming toward doubles territory near the Twins bullpen. But for the first time since September 7, 2019 — yes, 10 months and one day ago — Byron Buxton was patrolling that particular Minneapolis real estate.
You can probably guess what happened next.
Buxton got an instantaneous jump, took three quick strides away from home plate, and reached up to grab Cruz’s hot smash as it flew past. A routine out for Buxton, a handy assist to Dobnak — and probably an extra-base hit for Cruz if a different center fielder had been stationed out there.
“His defense is like no other. The best I’ve ever seen,” right fielder Max Kepler said shortly before the practice game began. “I’m definitely super excited to have him back on the field.”
It’s difficult for Buxton to share that enthusiasm at the moment, actually, but his ambivalence about being at Target Field, 1,300 miles from his Georgia home, at this particular moment is understandable. His second son was born Friday, and Buxton made it clear that, though he feels a responsibility to his team, his attention is divided.
“Obviously having a newborn and having to leave isn’t the ideal situation,” the 26-year-old Buxton said. His family has “been around [me] pretty much my whole career, [so] it’s awkward. It’s different this time around, with a newborn, so just getting used to that, I guess, is probably the toughest part.”
There have been a lot of tough parts for Buxton in the past year, most notably the torn labrum he suffered in his left shoulder while banging into the wall at Marlins Park almost a year ago.
The Twins’ best defender missed the final two months of the season, and was easing back into regular work this spring when the pandemic shut down training camps.
Now, there’s no mistaking his readiness to gobble up everything in his outfield ZIP code, Buxton said.
“One hundred percent,” is how he calibrated his physical condition. The 16-week delay “gave me time to fully get it healed and the way I want it. I’ve got no limit. I’m back to being myself and going out playing the game the right way.”
Actually, he’s redefining “the right way” for him, in light of his series of speed-kills injuries. No more pretending there are no walls, no more catch-and-collide, cross-your-fingers game plans.
“I had a little bit more time to figure out when to be aggressive, and when to be a little bit more conservative,” Buxton said. “I worked a little bit more on jumping off two feet. That kind of keeps me a little bit more in control, especially toward the wall. So that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve worked on over the break, just little things to try to get that edge.”
The edge he gets, he gives to those around him, too.
“Playing the outfield is definitely always a lot different without him beside me,” Kepler said. “He impacts the game on every aspect — hitting-wise, baserunning, mentally, too. Just to have him next to you on the bench is awesome.”
Buxton just wishes his new son could be next to him, too. If the standard newborn doctor visits go well, he said, his wife, Lindsey, and their first son, 6-year-old Brixton, will join him later this month. Otherwise, he said, he’ll try to get back to Georgia on the Twins’ rare off days during the nine-week season.
That won’t be easy, but it’s worth it, Buxton said, to see young Blaze Jett Buxton. Speaking of which — where did that spectacular name come from?
“I asked [Brixton] what he would want to name his little brother, and his first word was ‘Blaze,’ ” Buxton said. “So it’s something Brix came up with. He kind of messed around with it for about six months, and it’s something we liked, so we stuck with it.”