Joe Louis was ready to fight Billy Conn for the heavyweight title in 1941. Conn was smallish and known for his ability to move around the ring and avoid getting hit.
Asked about this, Louis issued the immortal phrase: “He can run, but he can’t hide.’’
This proved accurate, as Conn was leading on scorecards through the 12th round, and then Louis knocked him out in the 13th.
Center fielder Byron Buxton made his Target Field debut Wednesday night in front of a crowd that appeared to be divided equally between curious Twins fans and those loyal to the visiting St. Louis Cardinals.
Buxton had played three road games and went 2-for-10, with two runs scored and three strikeouts. What was demonstrated in those three games was that Buxton can run — really, really run — and that it is difficult for a raw rookie to hide from the realities of big-league pitching.
Two of the strikeouts came in his debut Sunday in Texas, when he chased breaking pitches that were a foot off the plate. The third strikeout came Tuesday when he was devoured on a Michael Wacha sinker under the hands in St. Louis.
Buxton is arriving in the big leagues at a time when there is better pitching than at any time in history. To validate this theory I asked Roy Smalley, a Twins analyst for Fox Sports North, if he saw it that way.
Smalley grew up in the game with his father Roy and his uncle Gene Mauch as big-leaguers. He then played in the big leagues for 13 seasons.
Asked if there’s more good pitching now than ever, Smalley said: “I think so. There are a lot of deep starting rotations, and then there’s the real difference … the bullpens. There are guys who throw as hard as Dave Righetti used to throw, pitching in the seventh inning, not the ninth.’’
To put it another way, this might be the toughest time ever for a young hitter to make his way in the big leagues, because he’s not going to get many at-bats against chumps … or, as we used to call them, middle relievers.
The Twins returned home Wednesday from a 1-4 road trip and with a 4-11 record in June. This had put the brakes on all that feel-good stuff from May (20-7) and helped to turn Buxton-mania into something more resembling the Gophers’ welcome home after winning the 2014 NIT championship.
Buxton’s first Target Field at-bat came with one out in the third. Some of the Twins fans tried to urge a standing ovation, but it was more an earnest reception than a special one.
Carlos Martinez, a pitcher with outstanding stuff, went to 2-0 on Buxton and then got him to hit a chopper toward shortstop. There was a brief anticipation of an infield hit, but third baseman Matt Carpenter cut off the ball and threw out Buxton by a step.
Buxton’s astounding speed did come into play in the third, when Carpenter hit a drive to deep center. Buxton got moving right away and ran it down. This time, the home crowd did muster something close to a roar of approval.
This is the fourth professional season for Buxton and he arrived in Texas on Sunday with 1,168 plate appearances. That total would have been over 1,500 if not for injuries.
So, yes, he was pushed because of the Twins’ void in center field. Throw in the fact he’s 21 years and 6 months, and it’s a good bet that his mind is going to be racing when he steps in the batter’s box for quite some time.
That was obvious in his second at-bat against Martinez. Chris Herrmann was on to open the fifth with a walk. Buxton took a strike, swung through a pitch and then, on 0-and-2, had to be guessing he would get a fastball.
Maybe that’s the way they do it in the Southern League. Martinez threw a breaking pitch to the heart of the plate and Buxton looked in amazement for strike three.
Buxton came up again in the seventh with two on and one out. This time, he struck out on a breaking pitch near the opposite batter’s box.
Yes, folks, this is going to take some time.