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‘It’s where he belongs’: Twins teammates excited to have Byron Buxton back in outfield

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Every Twins pitcher who has been on the roster for more than a season could probably name a time or two when Byron Buxton used his glove to help the team out of a jam.

But ace Pablo López, acquired before last season, had only heard about Buxton’s defensive prowess and seen it on highlights. He hadn’t had his own experience seeing the dynamic center fielder run around and flash the leather.

That changed this spring.

In a game earlier this month, with López on the mound, Buxton charged in and made a diving snag. He wasn’t planning on diving during spring training, but his instincts took over.

It was vintage Buxton.

Buxton, a Gold and Platinum Glove winner limited last season to serving as a designated hitter because of various injuries, has talked plenty about how much he missed playing the outfield. Now, his teammates are happy to see him back where he belongs.

“Actually seeing it in person, knowing what he’s able to do behind me when I’m on the mound, it’s awesome,” López said. “He’s Byron Buxton when he’s on the field. He likes what he does. And he leaves everything out there. He wants to let the pitchers know that he will cover all the ground that he possibly can.”

The Twins went into last season planning on having Buxton serve as their designated hitter as he worked his way back from knee surgery. The idea was that he eventually would start playing the outfield.

That never happened.

Buxton’s knee limited him to hitting all season, and he eventually underwent a second surgery. This time around, it’s clear to everyone around him that he’s feeling much better.

“(It’s) very cool to see him be able to go out there and be himself, just play baseball and have fun, watch him run around the park,” pitcher Bailey Ober said. “(It’s) very fun, and I’ll take that any day I’m pitching.”

Last year, one of the things Buxton said challenged him the most was not having the distraction of playing the outfield.

He had too much time to think about his at-bats — maybe he swung at a bad pitch and was mad at himself for it — and would tend to dwell on them. The fact that he then couldn’t go rob an opposing batter of a hit or help his team out in a different way ate at him.

“Getting him back this season as a healthy center fielder is one of the better additions that any team can make, and for him, seeing him go run around on the grass again, I know mentally for him is just the biggest relief in the world,” catcher Ryan Jeffers said.

Buxton was limited to just 85 games last year, hitting 17 home runs and slashing .207/.294/.438. He was hampered by pain in his knee, which he described earlier this spring as feeling like a knife in his knee. He eventually suffered a hamstring strain that held him out from early August through October, returning only for the Twins’ final playoff game.

A smile hardly left his face this spring, and it was clear from the beginning when he was leaving his teammates in the dust during their warm-up runs, that he felt much better.

When he takes the outfield for Opening Day on Thursday, it will be the first time he has been out there in a major-league game since Aug. 22, 2022.

It has been a long time coming — and all involved are ready for it.

“It’s fun to see him with so much joy, so happy, performing great, playing center field,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “It’s where it belongs.”

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