The St. Paul Saints were playing the 13th home game of this delayed season. The first night with no limits on attendance because of COVID restrictions Tuesday also coincided with the first occasion for sizable excitement given the Saints' new status as the Twins' Class AAA farm club.
OK, the skills of the personnel overall rated as an upgrade over the 28 seasons of independent league rosters, but it did not change the belief the best player to wear a Saints uniform remained Darryl Strawberry for that month in 1996, before he helped the Yankees win their first World Series title in 18 years.
Then came Tuesday night. Finally, the proximity of 11 miles between Target Field and CHS Field paid a dividend for Saints loyalists when the Twins' best player, Byron Buxton, arrived for a brief rehab assignment.
Buxton was batting second and serving as the designated hitter. He popped out to right in the first, against Carlos Hernandez, a pitcher the Twins faced last week in Kansas City.
In the third, he was facing Domingo Tapia, another big-league pitcher earlier this season and credited with a 101-mph fastball by the generous radar gun at CHS Field. Buxton drew a walk.
Then came the sixth. Lefthander Richard Lovelady was pitching and Buxton sliced a line drive over the head of right fielder Kyle Isbel. That's always three bases for Buxton, the fastest man ever seen in a Twins uniform, except …
"With him, it always looks like three, but I didn't know if he was going for it in this situation,'' Saints manager Toby Gardenhire said. "He was never going to stop there, though.''
The Saints were trailing 1-0 and, Twins-style, they left Buxton standing at third. Later, Daniel Descalso, with his fourth hit in 54 at-bats for the Saints, tied the game with a home run.
Buxton beat the shift with a single to right in the eighth. "I was thinking about running for him there, but the trainer told me, 'He wants to stay in,' " Gardenhire said. "When he got to second, though, we ran for him.''
The manager sent out Jimmy Kerrigan as a pinch runner, and he now can tell his grandchildren he was so fast that he once pinch-ran for the fastest man in baseball spikes.
The Saints scored three runs and won their return home 4-1.
The sport media — both those in attendance, at Target Field and elsewhere — waited 20 minutes to hear the promised Zoom interview. He backed out in the name of what was first termed postgame "rehab.''
Buxton. Rehab. Gulp!
Turned out, it was routine treatment after playing in a game for the first time since being injured on May 6 — a strained hip that showed up running the bases.
"He looked good to me, flying around out there,'' Gardenhire said. "He said he felt good.''
Will Buxton be in center field for the Saints on Wednesday, as planned? "I think so,'' Gardenhire said. "He'll be out there in center field.''
Once he's back with the Twins, this could be the most important four months in Buxton's 10 seasons in pro ball — not because one star player can rescue the Twins from this flop of a season.
A full-speed Buxton improves the Twins 20% in pitching, hitting and fielding. He saves runs, he scores runs and he's the best there is in center field.
These are the reasons the Twins need Buxton as the centerpiece to lead a comeback from this 2021 abomination. He turns 28 in December, and for another five years he will remain among MLB's fastest players, as well as being at his most mature as a hitter.
Yet, what the Twins will need to see to pay Buxton big bucks — to keep him from having 2022 as a walk year to free agency — would be evidence that he can stay in the lineup.
There will be 100 games remaining at the start of this weekend. Buxton has to be available for a bulk of those games. He can't have a bad step that injures a hip, a bad slide that busts up a finger, a diving catch that causes a concussion.
Buxton can miss two or three games with a nick, but an injury that looks like a few days can't turn into a month. Not again. Not if the Twins are going to pony up the premium contract that the Buxton camp will continue to require.
Buxton showed the optimum of his skills when he was named the American League's Player of the Month this past April. He showed his vulnerability the same week that announcement was made, straining his right hip while running the bases and heading back to the injured list.
Memo to Doc Roc: The best legs in baseball look good.