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Zulgad: Byron Buxton hears MVP chants as power surge continues in Twins’ home opener

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Minnesota Twins
Apr 8, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) celebrates after hitting a solo home run against the Seattle Mariners during the fifth inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

There is a temptation not to get overly excited about Byron Buxton’s red-hot start to the season given his past injury issues and the amount of time Twins fans have waited for him to reach his potential. But after a season of not being able to attend games because of the pandemic, many in the crowd of 9,675 on Thursday at Target Field decided this was no time to forebode joy.

So after Buxton blasted his fourth homer of the season into the second deck in left field off Mariners lefthander Marco Gonzales in the fifth inning, giving the Twins a six-run lead in what became a 10-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners, the fans who were allowed into Minnesota’s home opener responded with chants of “MVP.”

This came after manager Rocco Baldelli gave Buxton a start in the cleanup spot for the first time in his career. “He’s been swinging the bat great,” Baldelli said. “With the lineup configuration we were looking at for today’s game, he fit best there. He’s playing fantastic from every angle and (having) great at-bats. He’s finding the barrel (of the bat) and it’s just coming off so hot right now. That’s what we’re getting from Buck.”

The Twins still have 155 games left, and Buxton has only come close to playing a full season once in six years in the big leagues, but it’s getting difficult not to at least think about what could be when it comes to Buxton.

It’s not just that Buxton looks more comfortable at the plate than he ever has, it’s the fact he’s annihilating opposing pitching. The 27-year-old belted a career-long 456-foot home run  off Eric Yardley on Opening Day in a loss at Milwaukee. Two days later, Buxton lined a 411-foot homer on a 1-1 pitch in the seventh to break up Corbin Burnes’ no-hit bid in a 2-0 victory over the Brewers.

Buxton’s power surge continued on Tuesday in Detroit when he tied the score with a 451-foot blast into the left field bleachers in an extra-innings loss. The homer against righthander Jose Cisnero came off Buxton’s bat at 114.1 miles per hour, making it the highest exit velocity of any batted ball in Buxton’s career, according to MLB.com.

Buxton didn’t start that day after leaving Sunday’s game in Milwaukee because of a non-COVID related illness and sitting out Monday’s series opener against the Tigers.

Buxton arrived at spring training having added 12 pounds in his latest attempt to bulk up and stay on the field. Of course, Buxton added 21 pounds of muscle before the 2019 season and then played in only 87 games. Last season, Buxton appeared in 39 of the Twins’ 60 regular-season games, but he did finish second on the team with 13 homers and had a career-best .577 slugging percentage.

Watching Buxton this season, it’s hard to believe this is the same guy who a few years back was taking hitting advice from just about anybody willing to offer it and frequently looked lost at the plate. Buxton now has a swagger as he approaches the batter’s box.

He went 3-for-5 on Thursday, sandwiching his homer with a double down the third base line in the first and single to center in the sixth. Buxton is slashing .421/.476/1.211 with five RBIs. He also continues to play at a Gold Glove level in center field. Buxton always will be known for his extraordinary speed but right now that’s only part of his game.

“In a lot of ways Buck brings energy to what we do,” Baldelli said. “He’s not a guy that’s looking for that attention in anyway for himself. He’s looking to win a baseball game. … That is the way he approaches things. That’s the energy he gives off. He works really hard and competes his tail off every day when he’s out there.”

While Buxton might not be looking for attention, best case for everyone involved is he gets plenty of it. He is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2022 season, and Buxton’s injury issues have many wondering what his value will be on the open market. The Twins have spent the past few years trying to do team-friendly deals with Buxton, but any hope of signing him for less than huge dollars will be gone if Buxton continues to play like this.

Buxton is going to have to finally remain healthy for an entire season, if that is going to happen. If it does, Twins fans might not be the only ones who consider him to be an MVP.