FORT MYERS, FLA. – Byron Buxton had a two-homer night against the Boston Red Sox last June, one of his best games during the 2023 season.

He remembers it as his most painful game.

The pain in Buxton's right knee kept him from playing center field for an entire year. On that day in June, he wasn't sure how his it would feel after swings. He asked hitting coach David Popkins for one pitch to focus on.

Popkins told Buxton to look for a slider. When Buxton saw one in his first at-bat, he launched it into the third deck in left field. In his second at-bat, he saw a lefty changeup that was the same speed as a slider, and he lifted that pitch into the second deck.

If only it was always that simple. Buxton went hitless in his next 15 at-bats and struggled most of the year in his role as a full-time designated hitter.

"I feel like a stronger person going through what I did," Buxton said.

When Buxton describes what he went through to play last season, it explains why Twins players and coaches believe a healthy season from Buxton is more impactful than any trade or free agent acquisition.

“I realized I was playing, but it wasn't really helping the team. It was like you're in 0-for-20 slump, you ain't helping the team at all. Then what are you doing?”
Byron Buxton

Teammates saw him arrive at the ballpark seven hours before the first pitch to begin treatment on the trainer's table. They saw his bad days when he went straight from the training room to the field, then back to the training room after his at-bat.

"It got to the point where 99.9 percent of people would not have played the game," Popkins said. "He straps up no matter what because he's willing to do anything to help the team. I just admire him so much for that."

Buxton said he felt soreness in his knee as early as the second week of spring training, but he figured it was just fluid that needed to be drained. The way he played in April backed that belief. He recorded an .881 OPS during the first month of the season with seven homers and 17 RBI.

There was more soreness in May, which coincided with a 0-for-26 slump.

"I was like it ain't the knee," Buxton said. "Now I'm just psyching myself out. You've been playing hurt and you played good in April."

By June, the pain in Buxton's knee reached another level. He couldn't lift weights. It hurt to decelerate, so he told third-base coach Tommy Watkins to wave him home anytime he tried to score from first base on a ball in the gap. He had trouble keeping his knee loose, so he rode an exercise bike and ran on the treadmill between at-bats.

"I would go from the batter's box to, if we were still in the inning, wait until they get done and go back to the treadmill," he said. "It was back and forth. Mentally, you just never rested."

Buxton's last at-bat of the regular season, on Aug. 1, was a double he drilled to the wall in St. Louis. The ball left his bat at 116.9 mph, the hardest hit of his career. He cruised into second base and he felt tightness in his hamstring.

"I hit the hardest ball of my career, wasn't running, smooth normal jog I do every single day, and wham," Buxton said. "I could barely walk. That was probably that point where I was like, all right, that's my body saying it had enough now."

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Buxton didn't expect to remain on the injured list for the last two months of the regular season, but his knee didn't cooperate. He played one minor league game in center field but standing in the outfield led to knee tightness.

He was completely shut down for a few weeks when he attempted to run backwards during a rehab workout. On his first step, his knee buckled, and he fell to the ground.

"That was the first time it put me down, down," Buxton said. "That was when mentally I was like all right, I have to take a step back."

It's tough for any player to accept a step back, but the Twins started winning more games after the All-Star break.

"I realized I was playing, but it wasn't really helping the team," Buxton said. "It was like you're in 0-for-20 slump, you ain't helping the team at all. Then what are you doing?"

Buxton reached the point where the pain in his knee was tolerable to swing at the end of September, but he was left off the Twins' postseason roster. He focused on being a sounding board for teammates. Royce Lewis credited Buxton's advice when he handled DH duties in playoff games.

The Twins activated Buxton before Game 4 of the Division Series, and he was used as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning. He was unavailable to play in the field and may have been lifted for a pinch-runner if he reached base.

The sold-out Target Field crowd showered Buxton with a standing ovation.

"That was, by far, one of the best things that happened in my career," he said.

The at-bat didn't end the way he wanted. He hit a pop-up to first base. The ovation, though, meant everything to him in a year where he felt like he pushed his body as far it would take him.

"I don't know how many players get to experience that," Buxton said. "Definitely a long road the last two years not being able to play the way you want to play. To still have that type of support and love, it's pretty crazy. It's hard to put that into words."