It’s been a tough April for the Minnesota Twins. Josh Donaldson’s Opening Day injury triggered an avalanche of bad luck that included a COVID-19 pause, a doubleheader where they were shut out in both games and five extra-inning losses.
As a result, the Twins are in last place in the AL Central.
As the Twins try to shake off an 8-15 start to the season, it can be easy for players to become frustrated and lose concentration. But the difference between a team that gives in to the inevitability of a lost season and one that generates a late-season comeback can be one player who rises above the morass of a difficult start.
Byron Buxton has been that player. Entering Wednesday’s game with the Cleveland Indians, Buxton was hitting .390/.429/.847 over his first 16 games. And that was before Buxton went 5-for-5 at the plate and hit his eighth home run of the season in a 10-2 win.
While many things have gone wrong around him, Buxton is proving to be the player who can drive winning regardless of his situation.
The trend started when the Twins opened the season in Milwaukee. On Opening Day, they had taken a 3-2 lead into the seventh inning when Buxton came up with Max Kepler on second base.
The Twins needed an insurance run, and Buxton provided two with his first home run of the season. Although Alexander Colomé blew a three-run lead in the ninth, Buxton increased Minnesota’s chances of winning with his at-bat.
The following night, the Twins lineup was shut down by Corbin Burnes, who flirted with a no-hitter until Buxton smashed his second home run of the season to put the Twins on the board and knock Burnes out of the game. The result? A 2-0 victory.
A non-COVID illness didn’t slow down Buxton when the Twins visited the Motor City. In their April 6 game against the Detroit Tigers, Minnesota was behind 3-2 when Buxton entered the game as a defensive replacement. In his first plate appearance, he blasted another home run to tie the game at 3-3. The Twins bullpen gave up the lead in extra innings, but Buxton gave them another chance to win.
Even with Minnesota’s recent struggles, Buxton has been the player to keep things afloat.
In the Apr. 21 loss to the Oakland Athletics, the Twins held a 10-7 lead when Taylor Rogers allowed a pair of runs in the top of the seventh, but Buxton made a diving catch on a liner from Matt Olson to keep the Twins in front.
The effort was rendered irrelevant after Colomé blew another save, but Buxton continued to thrive. With the Twins on track for another loss, Buxton smashed another home run in the top of the 10th to put the Twins ahead 12-10.
The bullpen and poor substitutions let that game get away, but this is the kind of play that keeps a team from falling into a season-long abyss. It’s why players like Mike Trout are lauded for their consistency. He always is among the best players in the league despite playing on a mediocre Los Angeles Angels team.
It’s why the San Diego Padres loaded up their roster after Fernando Tatis willed them into the postseason last year, and it’s why the Boston Red Sox should have held onto Mookie Betts. These players drive winning, even during slumps when the rest of the team lets them down.
There’s a good chance that Buxton won’t continue to slug in the .900s throughout the season, but the Twins aren’t expected to be this bad all year. If Buxton can continue to carry the team now, the rest of the team will get hot at some point and hopefully dig themselves out of the hole they’ve created.
Even if Buxton shows signs of mortality, Nelson Cruz, Donaldson and others can pick up the slack. That could keep the Twins from being entrenched into the last place of the division and make a summer run toward a postseason berth.
Buxton knows this. At the beginning of Wednesday’s telecast, he mentioned that this team could be “electric” once they get going. If the Twins are going to rebound, Buxton has to be the spark.