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Zulgad: Tough break(s): Byron Buxton again finds out how difficult it is for him to avoid injury

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins
May 2, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) looks on during an at bat against the Kansas City Royals in the first inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Byron Buxton gave an odd hop after being thrown out on a close play at first early in Sunday’s game in Texas, causing concern he had aggravated the right hip strain from which he had returned a day earlier after missing 40 games.

Buxton had little interest in hanging around first to see if manager Rocco Baldelli or anyone from the Twins’ medical staff was coming to check on him. He pivoted and quickly made his way to center field. The oft-injured Buxton had been making his case to return to the lineup as the Twins opened their trip in Seattle and now that he was back he wasn’t about to depart.

Buxton had been placed on the injured list 10 times in seven big-league seasons — include his time in the minors and the number grows to 14 — and this time it was as if Buxton was showing his defiance toward the pain that often managed to stop him at the worst possible moments. Buxton probably figured if he ignored his balky hip, he might finally catch a break.

No such luck.

The fastball from Reds starter Tyler Mahle on Monday came in at 94-miles-per-hour and hit Buxton on the left hand during his fourth inning at-bat. Buxton jogged to first base as Baldelli and an athletic trainer emerged from the dugout. Buxton managed to convince the two that he should remain in the game, clearly hoping the pain in his hand would subside. It didn’t. When Buxton made a running catch in center to end the fifth inning he winced and then disappeared from the game.

X-rays revealed what is called a boxer’s fracture in Buxton’s hand and the expectation is he will miss a month or longer. The fracture is at the base of the fifth metacarpal in Buxton’s hand. “This isn’t fair,” Baldelli said. “That’s how I feel about the whole thing.”

Buxton’s numerous injuries always have been met with frustration, but this season it’s at a different level. He’s 27, set to hit free agency after the 2022 season and finally had put it all together. Always a brilliant center fielder, Buxton is slashing .369/.409/.767  with 10 home runs and 19 RBIs in 27 games.

He was the American League Player of the Month in April after hitting .426 with eight home runs, eight doubles and 14 RBIs. His speed makes him a nightmare on the bases and gives him the ability to track down flyballs that most outfielders can’t get near. He is a special talent and yet we might never get to see that talent for a full season. This isn’t about a player not reaching his potential or being a disappointment — that’s Miguel Sano and countless other athletes — but rather a rare talent who simply can’t stay on the field.

Buxton had played six seasons entering this year and only once played in more than 100 games (140 in 2017).

The Twins have been abysmal this season, but Buxton has been brilliant. When he can play. Buxton’s problems this season began during the Twins’ season-opening series at Milwaukee when he was briefly sidelined by a non-COVID related illness. He then missed four games because of a hamstring injury before hurting his hip in May.

There was a time when it was easy to write about the fact that Buxton needed to stop running into outfield walls, or quit diving for line drives, in order to take care of himself and stay in the lineup. One great play wasn’t worth another trip to the injured list. But what do you say when Buxton injures his hip running to first base, or breaks his hand on an inside pitch? There’s only so much he can do to avoid getting hurt and at some point it’s as if injury is coming to find him.

Late last season, when the Reds last visited Target Field, Buxton took a 92-mile-per-hour fastball off his helmet from Reds reliever Lucas Sims. Buxton experienced concussion-like symptoms and was only able to pinch run in the second and final game of the Twins’ loss to the Astros in the wild card round. Buxton, representing the tying run, was picked off first base in the eighth inning of what became the Twins’ 18th consecutive playoff loss.

This latest injury means Buxton won’t be able to be the Twins’ representative in the All-Star Game next month, despite the fact he is the only player on the team who deserves to go. His frustration has to be immense, especially since his injury history is going to cost him money in free agency and his success before hurting his hip this season made him a legitimate candidate for AL MVP.

Even in his brief return, Buxton picked up where he left off, going 4-for-11 with a double and home run in parts of three games. The Twins extended their winning streak to five games on Monday against the Reds, including 3-0 with Buxton, but lost to Cincinnati on Tuesday in the first game Buxton had missed.

The Twins are 100-52 over the past three years when Buxton plays. Discussions should focus on just how much the Twins are going to have to pay Buxton in free agency, but his many trips to the injured list have left us wondering if he’s worth the risk?

That’s a shame. Buxton had finally started to live up to the hype that came with being the second-overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft. If he could finally avoid the IL, there was no telling how good he might be. Unfortunately, Buxton found out again Monday just how difficult that is for him to do.