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Upbeat Byron Buxton ready to return to center field for Twins: “The pain’s gone, so I’m a lot more happy”

FORT MYERS, Fla. — There’s been no hiding the smile that seems as if it has been permanently plastered on Byron Buxton’s face since the veteran arrived at spring training. His joyful demeanor is a good indicator as to how Buxton, who underwent a second surgery on his right knee in October, is feeling.

“The pain’s gone, so I’m a lot more happy, 100 percent. 100 percent,” Buxton said. “The last couple years were definitely painful, just waking up feeling like a knife is in your knee every morning.”

Though Buxton had knee surgery in September 2022, he said walking into camp felt significantly different this year coming off this surgery, which was to excise the plica — a membrane flap — in the knee. Last year, he said, he wasn’t hiding what he was going through, but he suggested he was trying to play through a bit more than he was possibly capable of. This year, he said he’s fully healthy, which puts his mind at ease.

As Buxton prepares to return to the outfield — he did not play in a major league game in center field last season — he expects to have a fully normal spring training. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said Buxton — as well as a few of his teammates — might not be out there for the first game of spring, but he already has Buxton penciled in to play the outfield during the first week of games.

And though he’s one of the best defensive center fielders in the game — and has been doing it at the sport’s highest level for years — he’s not afraid to admit there are some jitters there returning to the outfield.

“(I’m) a little more nervous, I guess, for that first fly ball,” Buxton said. “I’ve not seen a fly ball in a couple years. It’s pretty nervewracking.”

Buxton arrived to camp after an offseason of rehab spent at home back in Georgia. He spent the winter in constant contact with major league strength and conditioning coach Aaron Rhodes, who he said would text him his workout every day, and athletic trainer Nick Paparesta, whom he would talk to after he did his therapy three days a week.

His therapist at home was on the same page as Rhodes and Paparesta, which, he said, created a “good flow” towards getting the outfielder back to 100 percent. Buxton also did some work with his track coach back home, and doing that running has helped him move past the “What if something else happens?” feeling that he might have had otherwise.

Buxton was limited to DHing last season because of his knee. He eventually landed on the injured list in early August for a hamstring strain, and while rehabbing with the Triple-A Saints, he went out to center field once to test it out. His knee did not react as they would have hoped, keeping him out of action until the Twins’ very last game of the season in October.

“I tried to put that past me to be able to go out there and help the team. The past year, you start to realize that’s not helping the team because you can’t go and do the things you want to do, even if it’s in a limited role,” he said. “The pain was definitely — it was a learning curve, something I’m glad I went through but wouldn’t do it again.”

Wait, glad?

“Yeah, I am,” Buxton said. “It’s what made me who I am today. If I didn’t try that, I probably would be regretting some of the things I did.”

Buxton hasn’t been shy in saying that serving as the team’s designated hitter was difficult for him to adjust to mentally. If an at-bat hadn’t gone how he wanted, normally he could trot out to center and impact the game with his glove. Last year, being unable to do that, led him to dwell on his at-bats.

Coming off his first All-Star Game appearance a year earlier, Buxton finished last year hitting .207 with a .731 OPS and 109 strikeouts — to go along with 17 home runs — in 85 games.

“I had a couple of games where I don’t get a hit and defensively, I’m like one diving catch and I can take my mind off this at-bat,” Buxton said. “And when you don’t have that distraction, which was something I tried to find all last year, it’s harder to do that when what you love to do is taken away from you.”

Now, that thing he loves — playing the outfield — is back on the table.

So it’s easy to see why the smile is on Buxton’s face.

“I went through a tough couple of years,” Buxton said. “For me, anything better than the last two is going to be a lot of fun.”

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