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Zulgad: Swell decision? Twins manager attempts to clarify kid-gloves treatment of Byron Buxton

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Minnesota Twins
May 15, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) reacts after hitting a home run off Cleveland Guardians starting pitcher Triston McKenzie (not pictured) during the fifth inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The crowd of 22,939 that turned out at Target Field on a gorgeous evening Saturday was the biggest since Opening Day. They were ready to watch the first-place Twins take on Cleveland and hoping Byron Buxton could spark a second consecutive victory over the Guardians. They didn’t get the latter (that’s baseball) or the former (that’s maddening).

Buxton was given what is a growing amount of maintenance days, meaning not only didn’t he start in center field or as the designated hitter but he also wasn’t used as a pinch hitter. Considering the Twins lost 3-2 in 10 innings, this made little sense. It’s one thing to not have Buxton — a guy whom manager Rocco Baldelli recently called “the best player in the world” — in the starting lineup. It’s another to sabotage any shot you have at beating an AL Central rival by refusing to use him.

Baldelli’s postgame explanation didn’t help to lessen the anger of Twins fans. “He wasn’t going to get in the game and get loose and fire up and get in the cage,” Baldelli said. “It would take a while for him to get ready to go out there. We discussed that as a group, but ultimately, I make that decision. When we make the decision before the game, we don’t change what we’re going to do when the game gets going.”

Saturday marked the 12th time in 34 games that Buxton hasn’t played and that is without making a trip to the injured list. He hurt his right knee on April 16 in Boston — which continues to be a problem — and suffered a low-level hip strain on May 7 against Oakland.

The issue is that by not being more forthcoming with the media, and thus fans, the Twins did themselves no favors. There are often times in sports when honesty isn’t the best policy, but this is one where the team needs to be as upfront as possible talking about a player who has made 12 trips to the injured list in eight big-league seasons. Calling Buxton the best player in the world one week and then shutting him down completely before a crowd that expected to see him is bad business.

Someone must have shared this with Baldelli because his explanation prior to the series finale against Cleveland was far more detailed.

“He still deals with some swelling in that knee that has come back several times this year,” Baldelli said. “The type of thing you cannot play through and play every day. It’s not something that’s possible right now, but we think with the plan we have, this is what’s going to allow him to get back to full strength or close to full strength where he can play almost every day. I hope this isn’t what we have to do the whole year. It’s not what Buck wants to do the whole year, I’ll tell you right now. But for right now, it’s what we have to do.”

This isn’t comforting for Twins fans to hear, but at least it provides a better reason for Buxton’s frequent absences and the decision to leave him on the bench Saturday as Nick Gordon struck out to end the game.

Back in the lineup on Sunday, Buxton put together a classic Buxton game. He slammed into the fence in left-center field on a fifth inning double by Andres Gimenez and stayed down for a few anxious moments before getting up. In the bottom of the fifth, Buxton hit his 11th homer of the season to left field to give the Twins a 3-1 lead. Buxton is now tied with Houston’s Yordan Alvarez, one behind the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, for the major league lead in homers, despite his lack of playing time.

As much as Buxton might have liked to take a shot at helping to win Saturday’s game, he made it clear he’s in agreement with Baldelli’s and the Twins’ approach. “We’ve got a process, the process of me staying on the field, trying to play 100 games, so however that looks, who knows?” said Buxton, who was wearing a wrap on his sore right knee. “We have a plan here, so we’re going to stick to it. Whatever else, outside of that, kind of don’t really matter to us. It’s all about winning. Going out, playing good baseball and doing what we know we’re supposed to do, which is go to the World Series.”

It’s moments like Buxton’s home run on Sunday when you wonder why he accepted a seven-year, $100 million deal with the Twins last winter when he could have waited to hit free agency after the 2022 season? But the fact he has been unavailable throughout so much of his career is a big reason it made sense to take the money that was on the table.

His sore knee is the latest confirmation of this and is why the Twins are resting a 28-year-old star player as if he’s well into his 30s.

Perhaps next time Buxton is sitting out, the Twins will have a plan to get him loose enough to take a shot at a pinch-hit home run in a key situation. Don’t count on it, though, and don’t count on Buxton being upset. The ticket buying public might want to see Buxton play, but it sounds as if the decision has been made that on his frequent days off, he will be allowed to play as much of a role as those spectators.