Twins’ Byron Buxton has had to play through pain to get to Tuesday’s All-Star Game
Through Sunday, Buxton has played 73 games — that’s 77.6 percent of Minnesota’s games this season — and so far has avoided an injury list stay for the first time since 2016.
Byron Buxton is set to start in his first All-Star Game on Tuesday in Los Angeles because, the story goes, he has been healthy for the first time in years. But healthy is something of a misnomer.
Battling a painful right knee since a collision with second base April 15 at Fenway Park, Buxton has had to work overtime to play as many games as he has.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player go through that on a daily basis, seven days a week, every day — and the pain, with the amount of medical work that he needs to do just to take the field,” manager Rocco Baldelli said last week.
Through Sunday, Buxton has played 73 games — that’s 77.6 percent of Minnesota’s games this season — and so far has avoided an injury list stay for the first time since 2016. Last season, he missed 101 games because of a hip strain and broken hand.
His consistent presence been a major reason the Minnesota Twins (50-44) have held a piece of first place in the American League Central for all but one game since April 16. Despite something of a skid this month — Buxton is hitting .161 with five extra-base hits and 23 strikeouts in 14 July games — he still leads the Twins with 23 home runs and ranks second to Jorge Polanco (48) with 43 RBIs, and remains one baseball’s best center fielders.
It’s also the reason he is an all-star for the first time, starting Tuesday’s game at Dodger Stadium after leading vote-getter Mike Trout was scratched because of back spasms.
“It’s all about the ability to stay on the field,” Buxton said Saturday. “I know what I’m capable of doing. Just staying on the field is the biggest situation.”
And it hasn’t been easy.
“It has been a collaborative approach with everyone within the organization,” head athletic trainer Michael Salazar said, “from our high-performance team, coaching staff and front office to put Buxton in the best position to be healthy this season.”
And, of course, Buxton. The Twins’ calendar says he has had 21 days off this season but that, too, is deceiving, Baldelli said.
“He hasn’t had a day off since the first day of camp,” the manager said. “As long as he has obligations to himself, to get his body right and to do anything he can to help himself, he’s not going to have any days off. And he knows that. He doesn’t want them.
“He’s not looking for any breaks right now. He’s trying to take the field. That’s what he’s trying to do. And the only way to do that is to take care of himself.”
The pressure to play this season has been difficult for Buxton, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 first-year player draft after new teammate Carlos Correa. Asked if he feels a sense of accomplishment by avoiding the injury list, he told reporters, “I haven’t really thought about it.”
The goal is to play, period.
“You know, days are good, days are bad,” he said. “But each and every day for me is a good opportunity to try and get a win for my teammates. Just being in the lineup with the guys, you know, it just kind of takes the negativity away with whatever’s going on to just go out there and focus on the game.”
Wait, negativity? Buxton, 28, is an all-star and the Twins are in first place. It’s been a great season.
“To some people,” he said. “I have expectations, or responsibilities and accountabilities that for myself are higher, especially when it comes to competing, regardless of what injuries or how I’m feeling,” he said. “If I’m on the field, I’m the best player, and if I’m not, that irritates me a little bit. It’s just all about trying to keep that level line and stay in the middle of the road.”
And if Buxton doesn’t pay attention to Twins-related social media, often peppered with complaints that one of the team’s best player isn’t playing, he does face the consistent flood of the same question, whether it’s from coaches trying to gauge whether they should put him in the lineup or reporters looking for the latest news: “How are you feeling?”
That in itself gets old, said former teammate Justin Morneau, who faced a similar barrage of questions after suffering a season-ending concussion just before the 2010 all-star break. Recovering from an injury is a solitary thing, the 2006 AL MVP said, and it’s difficult to be greeted with another “how are you?” when you’re among others.
Together, he said, “it’s a grind.”
And Morneau said there likely is more to it than that for Buxton, who signed a seven-year, $100 million contract extension last November.
“He probably wants to prove to people that he can play more. He knows what the expectations are,” said Morneau, a Twins special assistant and color television analyst. “And then he has expectations for himself. He wants to be the best player on the field, right? And he should because he has the talent to do that.
“But it has to be frustrating when you’re working so hard just to get on the field and sometimes you can’t go out there and just play free.”
Playing the game, contributing, being part of the team, Buxton said, is what allows him to get out of his own head.
“It does,” he said. “It does. Because it allows me to just go out there and enjoy the game with them. I know in the lineup, I bring the energy — and the energy brings a lot of fun. So, it’s the healthy part.”
An empathetic ally
There’s that word again. Maybe it’s not all about the physical part.
When it was suggested to Baldelli last week that Buxton doesn’t seem to be enjoying his all-star season, the manager said that isn’t true, and when you see Buxton pumping his arms after a big hit — as he did after a leadoff triple against the White Sox over the weekend — you can see the unmitigated joy he gets from the game and being a teammate.
But Baldelli allowed that it’s been a more difficult season for Buxton than most may realize.
“I think he has to deal with burdens no one else generally has to deal with, and I think there’s frustration that goes along with that because you’re dealing with these emotional ups and downs on a daily basis,” he said.
Baldelli should know. He had his share of injuries, and more, when he played Tampa Bay and Boston and retired at age 28 because of a chronic illness, mitochondrial channelopathy. It’s difficult, he said, “when you feel responsible, not just to answer to yourself and your teammates, and feel like you have to communicate that to an endless number of people every day. I know that takes its toll on anyone.”
Still, Buxton plugs away at treating what the team has officially described as tendinitis in his right knee.
“He has done a fantastic job this season with all his prep work, staying active even when he is not starting,” Salazar said. “But more importantly, he has incorporated recovery strategies as part of his routine.”
And it’s working. He already has exceeded his personal high of 19 home runs and is four RBI’s away from a career-high 47. More important, the Twins are in first place.
Buxton said he won’t do anything special for the All-Star Game and is mostly happy for his sons and father, who are excited to be joining him in Los Angeles. His father, he told reporters, is bringing a dozen baseballs to be signed by other all-stars.
“He’s excited, and for me, that’s what makes me happy,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
For Buxton, though — well, the spotlight isn’t for him. He didn’t plan to participate in Monday’s Home Run Derby, but that spotlight still will be difficult to avoid at what is essentially baseball’s red carpet event, and in Los Angeles, no less.
“I’m simple,” he said. “So, it won’t be too bad.”
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