ARLINGTON, Texas – By himself, Byron Buxton might foil baseball’s attempts to speed up games. There figure to be lots more pickoff attempts during Twins games from now on, and more replay challenges of close plays at first base than ever before.
The Twins’ prized rookie is touted as a five-tool player, but there was no doubt which one he showed off in his major league debut: speed. Major league speed.
“He’s got a beautiful stride,” Twins manager Paul Molitor marveled after Buxton scored the winning run from first base in the ninth inning Sunday. “He runs like not too many people in this game.”
He used his speed to glide through the outfield, once easily running down a fly ball by Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos to the warning track in right-center. And he used it to turn a hot grounder to third into a close play at first in his second at-bat.
“We got a little glimpse of his speed on that ball,” Molitor said.
And he used it, best of all, to score from first base on Eddie Rosario’s ninth-inning double, lifting the Twins to a memorable, and slump-busting, 4-3 victory over the Rangers.
“I told myself, ‘If Rosie hits one in the gap, I’m going to score,’ ” Buxton said. “It was amazing, especially in my debut, to get the winning run. It’s an amazing feeling.”
And the rest of his game Sunday? Less amazing. Hey, he’s a rookie.
“He was a little anxious, trying to see the ball and battle with two strikes. They got him to chase a couple times,” Molitor said of Buxton’s 0-for-4, two-strikeout debut. “Hopefully his at-bats will get better, the more experience he gets.”
And the less nervous he gets, too. Buxton arrived at the Birmingham, Ala., airport for his 9:13 a.m. flight Sunday morning at 6:15, so you could say he was eager to get here. When he arrived, he found a Twins No. 25 jersey hanging in his locker, his name in the lineup (batting ninth, Molitor’s attempt at deflecting pressure from the 21-year-old), and a clubhouse full of curious and excited teammates. No wonder it took awhile for the first-day butterflies to go away.
“Till about, maybe until my last at-bat, until I got the bunt down,” Buxton said. “I was more focused on getting the bunt down than anything else, so that just took all the nerves out of it.”
Buxton took some fly balls from coach Butch Davis before the game, trying to calm himself and get used to playing in a stadium with three decks. Buxton is determined not to let all the attention he has receiving harm his focus on his game. “I really don’t care about the pressure. I try not to pay too much attention to it,” he said. “I just want to come out here and help us win.”
Buxton didn’t know anything about Texas starter Nick Martinez, he said, so when the righthander delivered the first pitch of Buxton’s career, he just followed his plan. “I’m just going to go up there and see the ball, hit the ball,” Buxton said. “Let it eat.”
Good plan, but it didn’t work on Day 1. He took a fastball for a strike, tipped another for strike two, and let a 0-and-2 waste pitch go by. Then Martinez switched from fastballs to a slider in the dirt, and Buxton bit.
He made contact on his second at-bat, driving a hard grounder at Joey Gallo at third, then coming within a step of beating the throw. “We were joking about how close he made that play — how he’d probably lap me in a home-to-home race,” starter Phil Hughes said. “You can see the talent’s there, everything you need to be successful.”
He got nothing but sliders in his third at-bat and struck out chasing again, leaving Eduardo Escobar stranded on third. And in the ninth inning with Escobar on second, Buxton read the bunt sign. His bunt was too hard, though, and pitcher Shawn Tolleson threw Escobar out at third. In the dugout, Molitor contemplated having his rookie prospect steal second.
Tolleson “was changing his looks over there, and his times were fairly quick. It was going to be tough to run,” Molitor said. “If he got a jump, we were going to let him go. Once the count got in [Rosario’s] favor, we had to kind of shut him down to make sure we didn’t take the bat out of [Rosario’s] hands.”
Maybe it was for the best. “In the back of my head, I didn’t want to run us out of the inning,” said Buxton, 20-for-22 in steals at Class AA Chattanooga. “At the same time, I wanted to steal a bag to get into scoring position for Rosie to drive me in. But Rosie drove me in from first.”
And ended a successful debut. “I got my feet wet, got all the jitters out,” Buxton said. “I’m just ready to get back out there for another game.”