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Buxton giddy to return to center field with Twins after 554 days away

FORT MYERS, FLA. — It will finally happen on Tuesday. Exactly 554 days since he last played center field for the Twins, Byron Buxton will jog to his position in the first inning of a Grapefruit League game at Hammond Stadium against the Phillies.

And just as you would expect, Buxton has given some thought to what he hopes to accomplish in his 2024 debut.

"I hope I drop a fly ball. I really do," he said.

Hmmm. OK, maybe you wouldn't expect that.

But there's some logic to his madness, Buxton said. He's feeling no nerves about returning to the position where he once won a platinum glove, about ranging around the outfield during games rather than lurking around a batting cage as a designated hitter.

He took part in a warning-track drill on Monday, worked on feeling for the wall while trying to steal home runs, and "I was a little off. I know I'm off," Buxton said. "I can tell, I'm not where I want to be yet."

Best way to get there, he figures?

E-8. Whoops, should've had that one.

"When you drop one, it gives you a little bit more sharpness. A little bit more concentration. I haven't dropped a fly ball in awhile, haven't had a chance in more than a year. I'd rather get it over with, get that focus back," Buxton said. "It might be embarrassing for a minute, but if I drop a fly ball, I can guarantee you I'll never drop another one the rest of the year. I want that edge."

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The game doesn't count, Buxton pointed out, so maybe it's not a big deal that he's not nervous. Things figure to be different on March 28, when the Twins open the defense of their Central Division title in Kansas City.

"When I get out there for the first real game, then I'll feel a little different, a few more butterflies. It probably won't even take a game, maybe an inning. An inning and a ball hit to me, that's all it'll take to get the nerves out of the way," the 30-year-old Buxton said. "That I look forward to — being my regular self out there again."

The Twins are hopeful Buxton stays that way all season, but they added some insurance on Monday when they traded for Manuel Margot from the Dodgers, a strong defensive outfielder who can play in center.

Tuesday's game will also be the first of the spring for shortstop Carlos Correa, who said he's grown impatient waiting for it. "The live [batting practice] isn't really the same — you're seeing pitches, but you're not trying to damage them, and [pitchers are] not really trying to get you out," Correa said. "The first day is like a test in school. I'm excited to see where I'm at with a month to go."

He's also excited to see Buxton behind him. This year's Buxton — the cheerful, joking, apparently completely healthy one — has been fun to watch, Correa said.

That's because Buxton is having fun at the ballpark for a change, even just shagging fly balls and doing relay drills.

"I haven't done a drill in a couple years. So for me, just to be out there, even just doing drills, it's something to smile about. I didn't get to smell the grass all year," Buxton said. "Earlier in my career, when I did drills during spring camps, I'd be like, 'What are we even doing this for?' Now it's like, 'Look what we get to do!'"