In a pivotal series with the top two teams in the American League Central vying for the division advantage, the Twins had their franchise star on the field for only one of the three games.
And while the Twins avoided a Cleveland sweep and reclaimed a share of the division lead with a 1-0 victory Thursday, the feat was undoubtedly harder without Byron Buxton.
Buxton has dealt with a right knee injury since the end of spring training, well before a slide into second at Boston in early May made the issue public. He has seen doctors and undergone imaging and testing, which all revealed no structural damage. So the Twins devised a plan: treat the knee as much as possible, let Buxton play through it and give him days off every week or so to help him manage.
But missing Wednesday’s and Thursday’s games wasn’t foreseen. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said Buxton was in so much pain that he could not productively swing the bat or run, two very key parts of being a major league center fielder.
Buxton said he noticed his pain increasing on the off day Monday and did some work pregame before playing Tuesday. He said that “didn’t go well,” and trainers checked out his knee again postgame. Having to miss most of a divisional series was “unfortunate timing,” per Buxton.
“You never know. See how you wake up,” Buxton said of how the discomfort varies by day. “It’s just one of those things where I know I’ve got to deal with it. Make sure I stay on top of it and not try to push through things where I know my teammates have got my back.”
Baldelli said that many times Buxton has not felt his best but still played. Both Baldelli and Buxton said they’re hopeful he can return when the Twins start a series with Colorado on Friday.
It’s common knowledge that the Twins are more successful when Buxton is in the lineup, but the often-injured 28-year-old has cracked 100-plus games in a season just once in his previous seven seasons. His seven-year, $100 million contract extension this past offseason includes escalators written in to reward him for reaching 502-plus plate appearances in a season.
So all that is to say neither the Twins nor Buxton want a stay on the injured list. And Baldelli emphasized they’re not even sure a couple of weeks’ rest would resolve the issue.
The Twins have been vague about the exact problem but revealed Thursday it is a persistent and severe case of patellar tendinitis that causes immense swelling and pain, which in turn makes it difficult to move. Activity makes it worse, sometimes even within a game. Buxton works every day with trainers to quell the injury, but there are still days when his leg will give out from under him.
Baldelli stressed that all the medical experts consulted have agreed what the team is doing is the right way to proceed, though a potential IL stay could always become necessary, even if it’s not a part of the immediate plans.
Despite the injury, Buxton still leads the team with 19 home runs and 33 RBI.
“I’m not back to where I want to be,” Buxton said. “Probably about the same. I wouldn’t say it’s worse. I wouldn’t say it’s better. Some days are better than others. So take those days, and I try to run with them as most as I can. On the bad days, you battle.”
Josh Winder completed a third rehab start with the Class AAA Saints on Wednesday, pitching four innings with one home run allowed, two walks and three strikeouts in Buffalo. The Twins reinstated him from the injured list Thursday after he recovered from a right shoulder impingement, then immediately optioned him to St. Paul rather than carry six starters.