Twins star Byron Buxton relishes return to outfield

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Byron Buxton trotted out to center field for the first time in a major-league game on Thursday, it was for the first time in nearly 600 days. Understandably, he was amped up and excited, leading to him nearly overthrowing right field Max Kepler on some warm-up tosses.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been throwing with Kep in right field,” Buxton said. “Just the little bitty things (Thursday) was what made me happy. It was like, ‘I played a whole nine innings in center and feel good.’ To come out the way we did and feel the way we did, and feel the way I did, I feel like the sky’s limit.”

Getting Buxton back into the outfield was an accomplishment not just for him, but for everybody who aided him along the way, from his family to the team’s training staff and everyone in between. It was an endeavor that took much longer than anybody first anticipated.

When the Twins first announced their plan for Buxton to start last year as their designated hitter as he rehabbed from the first surgery on his right knee, it was supposed to be temporary. He was supposed to transition back there later in the season but instead ended up never playing an inning in the field in a major-league game.

A second surgery on his right knee — this one to excise the plica — left Buxton in a much better place and opened the door for him to return to the outfield.

“It’s what we’re always hoping for, aiming for,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “… The lineup looks real nice when he’s sitting there and he’s in center field.”

Buxton had a chance to chase down a few flyballs in Thursday’s season opener, a 4-1 victory over the Royals. His first opportunity came in the bottom of the fourth inning when he shaded his eyes from the sun and easily retired Royals catcher Salvador Perez.

Getting that first one, he said, kind of took some of the nerves away.

“Crossing those lines … and running out to center field was a big accomplishment, and the work I had in the offseason, not just for me but the family, the coaching staff, the guys in here because it was a long road not just for me but for everybody,” Buxton said. “They had my back this whole way. Without them, it’s kind of one of those where I probably wouldn’t be in as good a headspace as where I am right now.”

That headspace wasn’t nearly as good last season, when he would sit in the dugout and dwell on at-bats that didn’t go his way with little to distract his mind while his teammates were on the field playing defense.

But even as he sat on the bench, day after day last season, waiting for his turn to hit, he said he never wondered if his body would allow him to return to center field.

“Why would I wonder? My goal is to go back to center. I ain’t wondering,” he said. “I know I want to go back to center. That’s the goal. If you wondering, you will not be back to where you want to be.”

While returning to center field was a primary focus for him, as opposed to some years in the past when he tried to set more specific goals for himself, the Twins outfielder has now shifted away from that.

“Every goal I tried to write out, you know what that goal was?” Buxton said. “Be healthy. Haven’t been healthy.”

So now he has a new goal, a new mantra that he has decided to live by — one he mentioned multiple times.

“My goal is to be present and available. Not healthy. If I’m present and available, that means I’m playing every day,” Buxton said. “If I’m playing every day, my numbers will be where they’re supposed to be.”

He was present and available on Thursday, playing the entire game in center and finishing the day 1 for 4 at the plate with a walk and a run scored.

And he’ll be present and available for himself, his teammates and his team on Saturday, when the Twins hit the field next, for Game 2.

“Every day is enjoyable,” Buxton said. “I don’t have to worry about dang DHing for three hours and not getting a hit. Now I can go out there and steal some hits. Oh for 3 now feels like 3 for 3 if I can go out there and not give you a hit.”

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