CHICAGO – Byron Buxton struck out all four times he came to the plate Friday night. He also might be the reason the Twins are off to their best start in three decades.
The slumping outfielder tracked down a pair of near-certain extra-base hits at the base of the center-field wall during Phil Hughes’ shaky first inning, turning a possible four- or five-run inning into one harmless run, and the Twins came back to earn a 3-1 victory over the White Sox.
The victory improved the opportunistic Twins to 4-0 for the first time since 1987. Yeah, that season ended in a dogpile in the Metrodome, but let’s not get too crazy. For now, the Twins, coming off a record 103 losses last season, are just enjoying their unexpected stretch of timely hitting, strong pitching — and especially that stellar outfield defense.
“We might have won it with defense in the first inning, particularly [by] our center fielder,” manager Paul Molitor said after the Twins won their first road game of the season for the first time since 2009. “It’s hard to imagine [Buxton] almost outran a ball that got to the wall very quickly.”
It’s pretty easy to imagine what might have happened if he hadn’t. Hughes, pitching for the first time since an inning-ending knee fracture last June, gave up three singles and two 400-foot blasts to the first six batters he faced. What might have been a disaster instead turned into a tidy one-run inning, because Buxton raced back 75 feet to make warning-track catches both times.
“Once I took off, I put my head down, and kind of lost the ball,” Buxton said. “When I looked back up, I saw it out of my peripheral [vision]. … Pretty tough catches, but right now I’ve got to do what I’ve got to to help us out. I ain’t swinging the bat so good, so I have to take as many hits away as I can to help us out until I get back my swing.”
Buxton is off to a 1-for-18 start with a major league-leading 11 strikeouts, but there aren’t any pitchers on the Twins staff who would complain.
“He’s great. If you keep the ball in the yard somehow, he’ll track it down,” said Hughes, who collected his first victory since last April 18. “That was a game-saver in the first. That was probably the turning point there, and fortunately I was able to settle in and make some pitches.”
Buxton wasn’t the only one, either. Eddie Rosario jumped at the wall to make a difficult catch in the left-field corner, and Max Kepler dove for a run-saving catch at the foul line to end the fifth inning.
Thanks to the defense, Hughes lasted six innings and retired 13 of the final 14 hitters he faced. The Twins weren’t sure what to expect, but Hughes put to rest any doubts about his recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome. “It seemed like things got easier as I went along,” he said.
Things are pretty easy for Miguel Sano these days, too — even a new position. The third baseman made his first career start at first base, and while it was new to him, he was Same-Ol’-Miguel at the plate.
With the score tied in the sixth inning, Sano won an epic at-bat against White Sox starter Derek Holland, fouling off five pitches before crushing a 3-2 delivery to the wall in right-centerfield, a blast that scored Robbie Grossman from first base with the go-ahead, and ultimately game-winning, run.
“He threw me a lot of breaking balls. I was trying to be ready for a fastball,” Sano said. “He finally throws me a fastball inside, and I was way out ahead and hit it foul. He throws me another fastball, and I stayed on it.”
“It was a great at-bat,” Molitor said. “Miggy’s at-bat was a huge at-bat in the game, just to foul off as many pitches as he did. He stayed on that ball 3-2 and used the whole field.”