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Zulgad: Here’s the catch: Twins change Byron Buxton’s positioning to avoid collisions with wall

MINNEAPOLIS — There was one out and the Detroit Tigers had a runner on second base Friday night when Nicholas Castellanos drove a ball to deep left-center off Twins starter Jake Odorizzi.

Center fielder Byron Buxton, as he has done so many times before, used his speed to get back to the fence, planted his right foot in the wall and made a highlight-worthy catch. Odorizzi struck out Miguel Cabrera to end the inning and then retired the next 18 hitters as the Twins cruised to a 6-0 victory at Target Field.

Buxton’s play wasn’t noteworthy because he made the catch — he long ago proved he could make the spectacular look routine — but what was worthy of attention was Buxton’s approach toward making the grab. For a little over a week now, Buxton has appeared to have changed his ways when it comes to his approach to the outfield wall. Instead of crashing into the fence at high speed, as if he was trying to punish it like a cornerback would a wide receiver who just caught a pass, Buxton is far more under control as he robs opposing hitters.

The catch of Castellanos’ drive was the latest example.

Buxton confirmed this weekend that this approach is no accident and that he has been playing a deeper center field in recent weeks in an attempt to keep him healthy. “That is something that we’ve been trying to work on … ways of how to get me to not slam into the wall as hard,” said Buxton, who won a Gold Glove in 2017. “I just take a couple steps back (in positioning) and usually that kind of does the job.”

The Twins put this plan into action following an April 2 game in Kansas City when Buxton tried to take out another center-field wall. It came in the eighth inning of that game, when the Royals’ Adalberto Mondesi blasted the ball over Buxton’s head. Buxton got up a full head of steam and slammed into wall. He fell to the ground without the ball in his glove and had to get up and retrieve it as Mondesi rounded the bases for an inside-the-park home run.

“That one hurt,” Buxton said. “I don’t think I slowed down at all when I hit that one.”

Buxton did not start the following day in Kansas City, getting into the game as a pinch-runner, and the Twins were off the next day. Buxton then sat out the first game of a series at Philadelphia on April 5 before he was able to return in center field on April 6.

This wasn’t the first time Buxton had missed time because he tried to punish a fence. He hurt himself crashing into the wall in the Twins’ wild card playoff loss in 2017 at Yankee Stadium and had to leave after three innings. In May of last season, Buxton had to be removed from a 12-inning loss at Seattle in the sixth inning after he came within feet of stealing a two-run homer from Nelson Cruz. Buxton crashed into the wall, his glove flew off his hand and he fell to the warning track. That caused a laceration above his eye.

But those incidents didn’t get Buxton to change his ways. The importance of this season for Buxton, after an injury-plagued and extremely disappointing 2018, caused the organization to take a different approach after they saw Buxton flirt with the injured list in only the fourth game of the season.

Buxton said first-year manager Rocco Baldelli, and many others, approached him after that day in Kansas City. The message, according to Buxton, was simple: “Hey, man, we’ve got to find something so you’re not slamming into the wall.”

“It was pretty much everybody,” Buxton said. “It was one of those things where it was like, ‘All right, Buck,’ everybody could see it, everybody felt it. ‘You’ve got to make some type of adjustments to stay on the field.'”

The decision was made that Buxton would play a deeper center field, thus lessening his speed when he did go back on balls and keeping him more under control.

“He makes all the great plays, but keeping him from hitting the wall hard that’s an added challenge,” Baldelli said. “(Buxton’s) a long-strider, he’s a guy that gets going, we know he can really run. He’s one of the fastest players to play the game in a while. When you’re making good plays near the wall and you’re running full speed, there’s no way he’s going to be able to slow down.

“I think the adjustment is on him. I think there has been an adjustment, and I think he’s taken to it pretty well. … Even being able to run just under full speed and stay kind of under control and then make the play and then be able to make an adjustment at the wall at that point. I think that’s probably helped him a little bit. But he’s also made some tremendous adjustments on his own, just body control-type adjustments.”

The concession is that some (key word being some) balls that Buxton would have been shallow enough to catch now might (key word being might) fall in front of him.

“It’s one of those things where it’s tough because I don’t ever want to give up those hits in front of me, either,” Buxton said. “Those bloop hits are usually what starts a rally, or what starts big innings, or what leads to runs. It’s the little things that usually lead to runs. I try to do everything in my power to prevent those and just taking those couple of steps back it kind of … not necessarily puts a halt to that, but those that you think you can get, you kind of just play it off as, ‘OK, he got his single, whereas we won’t give up a double.’”

Buxton acknowledged that playing deeper means we could see him racing in for sinking liners and making a diving attempt to avoid giving up a hit. “I ain’t about to just let them get it,” he said.  “If that opportunity comes to it, most definitely (I’ll dive).”

As long as Buxton gets up, and can stay in the game, everyone with the Twins will be happy.


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