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The curious case of Byron Buxton

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Is what happened against Houston a problem going forward?

Wild Card Round - Houston Astros v Minnesota Twins - Game Two Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In July of 2018, my first Twinkie Town post as Staff Writer dealt with how the Twins were mishandling Byron Buxton’s season. That year, the Twins tried to rush Buck back from a toe injury, then later refused to call him up to the big club when he finally was healthy. A complete and utter mess, to the point where Byron’s standing in the organization was being questioned.

But then Paul Molitor was let go, and Rocco Baldelli’s first assignment—building a bridge to Buxton—seemed like a successful one. Throughout 2019 and 2020, there was no more talk of Byron being disgruntled in any way. Instead, he became widely regarded as the Twins’ linch pin to offensive success.

That might have all changed in the final week of the 2020 season. In the last regular season series against the Reds, Buxton was struck in the helmet by a pitched ball.

Cincinnati Reds v Minnesota Twins
A scary moment
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

He seemed to be at least “okay” and walked off the field under his own accord, yet missed the final few games of the season with what the team called “mild concussion symptoms”. After much angst about whether or not he’d make the AL Wild Card series roster, he was indeed added. In Game 1 against the Astros he started in CF, batted second, got a hit, and even stole a base. Despite three whiffs, he looked little worse for wear.

In Game 2, however, Buxton was not in the starting lineup. During one of those horrible in-game manager interviews, Rocco told the ESPN announcers/clown show the reason for this was Byron “not being 100%”. It was more the way Rocco said it as opposed to the information itself that made fans sit up and take notice.

Had Baldelli—or the Twins organization as a whole—simply come out and said “Buxton is dealing with concussion repercussions from being plunked in the ‘ol bean a few days ago”, that would have been understood. Incredibly unlucky and disappointing, to be sure, but MN sports fans have seen concussions either end or severely hamper the careers of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Corey Koskie. In other words, we don’t—or shouldn’t—take head injuries lightly.

But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, Rocco danced around the question, then used Buxton as a pinch-runner late in the game that produced a very odd scenario. In a one-run game, Buxton never attempted to steal and was eventually picked off to crush the scoring opportunity. Something seemed fishy about the entire sequence.

American League Wild Card Game 2: Houston Astros v. Minnesota Twins
Whoops
Photo by Jordan Johnson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

To this very moment, I still don’t quite understand what transpired between Buxton and the Twins in that short series, but it somewhat reeks of duplicitousness. If Byron was healthy, he should have started both games. If not, he should have been left off the roster in favor of someone else who could contribute. Perhaps I am underestimating the day-to-day nature of concussion-type injuries. Perhaps he truly was feeling good to go for Game 1 but not for Game 2. Even in that case, though, why was he used late in that second contest?

The foibles surrounding Byron Buxton’s health have been a powder-keg for this organization since his debut in 2015. Once Mauer retired after ‘18, Buck’s various maladies have been the easiest scapegoat for fan frustration and angst. In the biggest moments of the 2020 season, that same issue reared its ugly head.

As of now, I haven’t heard anything regarding the curious case of Byron’s playoff usage. I’m not sure if that is a good or a bad set of circumstances. It feels like a situation that needs a bit of official explaining, yet at the same time perhaps picking at the wound will only open up a worse bleed. It is simply the first time during the Falvey/Levine/Baldelli era that I’ve felt some unsavory business might have been going on behind the scenes.