In case you were wondering whether the Twins were on the precipice of giving up their designs on another American League Central Division championship, consider that they are still waiting, and eager, to get Byron Buxton back into their lineup.
When the Twins fell five games behind first-place Cleveland while idle on Monday, you would have been forgiven for thinking, “Well, that’s it for Buxton. He ain’t coming back.”
But that is not the case, at least not yet. As the Twins started a three-game series against Kansas City on Tuesday, Buxton was among a large handful of players the team was hoping to return for a late run at a division title.
If the Twins wanted to cut bait on Buxton’s season so that he can be healthy for 2023 – the second of a seven-year, $100 million contract the center fielder signed last November – it would be news to manager Rocco Baldelli.
“If that decision goes on, I’m sure I would end up being a part of it in some form,” Baldelli said before Tuesday’s game. “But I’ll let someone else tell me that that’s going to be the case. In the meantime, I’ll be pumping, trying to get him back in any way possible. And that’ll go down even to the very last moment of this season for us, whenever that comes.”
Among the plethora of key players the Twins are hoping to get back for one last shot at passing first-place Cleveland and second-place Chicago in the Central, none is more important than Buxton, who still leads the team in homers (28) and ranks fifth in runs batted in (51) despite playing at least 10 fewer games than the four guys ahead of him.
The sooner Buxton returns, the sooner the Twins can think at least a little more realistically about making a run over their last 23 regular-season games. Already bothered by a right knee issue since mid-April, the center fielder has been on the injured list with a hip strain since Aug. 24.
When he last played in a 2-1 victory over Texas on Aug. 22, the Twins were two games out; since then, they’ve lost 12 of 19 and fallen five games behind first-place Cleveland, and two behind second-place Chicago.
“There’s no bigger part of this team when it comes to winning ballgames than Byron Buxton and having him on the field,” Baldelli said. “We know that. We know how much he matters here.”
Not that it’s all on, or about, Buxton.
Among players the Twins hope to get back before the regular season ends Oct. 5, second baseman Jorge Polanco, leading the team with 56 RBIs when he was sidelined by a left knee injury, has been sorely missed. And right-hander Tyler Mahle, the Twins’ biggest trade deadline acquisition, made two quality starts before being sidelined by shoulder inflammation.
If Mahle comes back at all this season, Mahle said Tuesday, it likely would be for a postseason series. But Baldelli said Polanco could be back this week, and that Buxton, “Might be a little bit behind that.”
By the Twins’ own account, trainers have worked on Buxton’s right knee from dusk till dawn just to get him on the field for 92 games this season. Since he was placed on the injured list with a hip injury on Aug. 24, the combination of Buxton’s absence and the Twins’ fall in the standings have suggested that bringing him back might not be worth it.
Why risk exacerbating his injuries in a race the Twins can’t win?
But the Twins still think they can win this race, and they think Buxton could be back, probably as a designated hitter, by next week if he continues to respond to treatment and rehab.
Getting Polanco and Buxton back would dramatically extend a lineup working most nights with a paucity of good at-bats in the back end of the order. Getting a healthy Trevor Larnach (core surgery) back in left field, would, too. As currently constituted, the Twins just don’t have the horses, made clear by Cleveland’s weekend sweep at Target Field.
Those teams play five times in four days starting Friday, probably their last chance to stay alive in the Central. That would set up a window during which Buxton could play a meaningful role.
“We have work to do. We have more work to do than we even did before the last series,” Baldelli said. “So, we have to understand that. We do, still, control a lot. There are a bunch of games to play. They’re all going to be important games from here on out, basically every series.”