BALTIMORE – There were two outs in the seventh inning of a tie game Saturday between the Twins and Orioles. Torii Hunter was on second base, clapping his hands and gesturing to Byron Buxton, who was in the batter’s box.
“He was fouling off some balls,” Hunter said. “I was yelling, ‘Come on, baby! Come on, baby!’ ”
Buxton stroked a single to left and Hunter scored with what was the winning run in a 3-2 victory over the Orioles on Buxton’s first major league RBI. After the play, Hunter asked Buxton if he heard him yelling.
“Yeah! I saw that stuff!” Buxton replied. “That pumped me up!”
Hunter laughed as he told the story because Buxton, who is polite and respectful, hasn’t shown much emotion during his brief major league career. But it is beginning to emerge as he gets more comfortable in the clubhouse.
“He’s cracking jokes and laughing and taking jokes from guys,” Hunter said. “He has a better personality than people think.”
Buxton’s talent also is emerging as he gets more comfortable in the batter’s box. He was 5-for-15 in the first three games of the series against the Orioles before going 0-for-6 on Sunday. It was easier to see why Buxton has been considered by many as the top prospect in the game.
So far, the Twins have reason to believe Buxton’s second stint in the majors will be much better than the first, when he batted .189 in 11 games in June before a sprained thumb sent him to the disabled list.
“He’s got the ability to do it, we all know that,” manager Paul Molitor said. “It’s just about settling in and finding ways to have good at-bats and give yourself the best chance day in and day out.”
He has also noticed that Buxton is at the point where he no longer feels the need to tread lightly around the clubhouse.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around him enough to know that there’s a free spirit in there somewhere,” Molitor said, “but he’s a serious guy about his game. And I kind of like that. Just in how the interaction is with the players. Not just taking it but giving it back a little bit.”
Buxton had a bad taste in his mouth from his first sampling of the major leagues. He walked only twice and struck out 15 times — four times to White Sox ace Chris Sale on June 24. He was behind in the count in many of his at-bats, forcing him to play defense while on offense. After he rehabilitated his thumb he was assigned to Class AAA Rochester, going there looking to hit more strikes than taking them. He was batting .400 with hits in all 13 games he played in when the Twins called him up to replace the injured Aaron Hicks.
“You want to come up here and succeed, and it is tough and you get frustrated when you’re not hitting the ball when you first get up here,” he said. “You just have to adapt and adjust, and if it takes getting sent down like I did to get confidence back and get in a groove it can only help you in the long run.”
He led off Thursday in his first game back and took a big rip at the first pitch from Baltimore’s Miguel Gonzalez. He missed, but it was a statement that he was going to cut down on the times he lets good pitches go by.
Buxton went 1-for-6 Thursday, 2-for-5 Friday and 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI Saturday. His 0-for-6 Sunday was in a game started by Orioles righthander Kevin Gausman, who was taken two spots after Buxton in the 2012 draft.
It’s now how you start …
Slow starts are nothing new for Buxton. After signing with the Twins for $6 million in 2012, he promptly began his professional career by going 1-for-27 in the rookie Gulf Coast League. He hit .295 over the next 19 games and was moved to Elizabethton, Tenn.
His 2014 season was plagued by left wrist problems and a concussion, but he started 3-for-28 at Fort Myers before hitting .280 over the next 22 games and moving on to Class AA New Britain.
“It has taken him awhile at some levels to get going,” General Manager Terry Ryan said. “The second time through he’s going to be a lot more aware of things and confident in what he can do.”
The more Buxton reaches base, the more he will be able to showcase his explosiveness and baserunning. Saturday, Buxton nearly beat out a sacrifice bunt in the sixth inning. Scouts at the game timed Buxton between 3.5 and 3.6 seconds from the righthanded batter’s box to first base, which is blazing. A bunt does give the runner a little bit of a head start. Twins officials have timed Buxton at 4.0 seconds to first after taking a full swing, and that’s fast enough to need a dragster chute to slow down.
The Twins are like everyone else: They want to see his speed in play more often, which they hope will happen during his second tour of the majors.
“He’s ready to win,” Hunter said. “That first time through broke the ice a little bit for him. Now he’s having good at-bats, he’s making contact and playing good defense. He’s helped us win in ways people don’t understand.”