ARLINGTON, Texas — It took until the 27th out, but Byron Buxton finally had a ball hit toward him in center field. In true Buxton fashion, the outfielder made the play look easy, running after the ball, settling under it and then squeezing the final out of the game in his glove.
“He was camped under that ball, and I don’t know if many other guys in the league would be camping under that ball,” starter Randy Dobnak said. “Most of them would be, like, full spring, full steam ahead trying to catch that.”
After six weeks on the injured list with a Grade 2 strain of his right hip, Buxton returned Saturday and made his impact felt immediately in the Twins’ 3-2 win over the Rangers. Buxton went 1 for 4, beating out an infield single and scoring on Nelson Cruz’s two-run home run.
While Buxton’s sprint speed on the infield single was classified by Statcast as elite, he said he still hasn’t fully cut it loose, which his manager, Rocco Baldelli, is A-OK with and is encouraging for a short period of time “until he gets his feet under him.”
“(You’re going to) know when I’m healthy, trust me,” Buxton said. “I’m healthy now, but we’ve got little cut things to worry about and, you know, I don’t want to go back on the bench. … Whatever I’ve got to do to stay on the field and keep myself on the field, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The Twins felt comfortable sending Buxton back out on the field after a clean MRI on Thursday and an additional opinion from Rangers team physician Dr. Keith Meister. After getting both of those two things and positive feedback from Buxton as he tested out the hip, the Twins medical staff deemed Buxton ready to return Saturday.
Buxton, who was the American League’s Player of the Month in April, has paired his Gold Glove-caliber defense with a .365 batting average, .402 on-base percentage and .750 slugging percentage this season. It was a return Buxton — and everyone in the Twins’ clubhouse — had been eagerly awaiting, but the Twins were careful not to rush.
“With Roc it’s a little bit different because he knows the player and the person. He kind of got a bead on you before you kind of go into his office,” Buxton said. “I guess that’s why it’s a little bit tougher for him to let me go. It’s hard. You know, we let Rocco kind of stick to the managing thing and we just try to get on his nerves to let us play.”
After ramping up, the Twins sent him out on a three-game rehab assignment with the Tripla-A St. Paul Saints last week, where went 5 for 9 with a pair of home runs. He also felt something in his hip which ultimately postponed his return, though only by a few days.
“Just having him in center field, it puts everyone else in kind of a different state,” Baldelli said. “Seeing him out there, it makes you feel real good.”
To make room on the roster for Buxton, the Twins optioned Willians Astudillo — a clubhouse and fan favorite — to St. Paul. It was a decision Baldelli said was both hard to make and hard for Astudillo to hear.
“He truly does keep everybody going here in several different ways,” Baldelli said. “… It’s not just energy. It’s personality, it’s encouragement, it’s a lot of things that he brings that I consider very valuable. On top of that, he’s obviously done a lot for us versatility-wise. He does what he’s asked to do all the time. All that being said, he took it hard, but he’ll be back I’m sure.”
While Astudillo does provide the Twins with versatility on the field — he has played right field once this season as well as first, second and third base and has even made three memorable appearances on the mound — Nick Gordon’s emergence (and his own newfound versatility) made the decision tough on the Twins.
Gordon, a middle infielder by trade, had found himself in center field recently by necessity before Buxton’s return and has also been taking pregame reps at third base.
“He’s earned this opportunity by getting back, by taking care of himself, but also by just going out there and playing well,” Baldelli said.
Kenta Maeda will start on Sunday in the series finale in Texas. … Baldelli said Michael Pineda (forearm) is taking it light, mostly getting treated right now. When the Twins return home, Baldelli said he will hopefully start ramping up a little bit.