MINNEAPOLIS — Byron Buxton took two steps backward when the ball left the bat, believing it was hit deep.
Slipping in transition upon realizing he overestimated the distance and needing to charge forward, Minnesota’s center fielder used his fast feet at full power to reach the launch zone in time for a lunging catch of the sinking liner by Kansas City’s Paulo Orlando.
“The outfielders, we’ve got this little thing: Nothing falls but raindrops,” Buxton said after the Twins beat the Royals 7-1 on Monday to start the season. “So we kind of take that to heart, and we want to be the best outfield out there, so we try to take and be aggressive at every fly ball, every line drive that we can.”
Two innings earlier, in the third, he sprinted to his right to complete a diving grab of Alex Gordon’s sharp, looping drive into shallow left-center. Starting pitcher Ervin Santana raised his right arm in a sign of respect and solidarity as he turned toward the dugout after the final out.
“Phenomenal,” was Royals manager Ned Yost’s description.
That’s what the Twins have been waiting for since they drafted Buxton out of rural Appling County High School in Georgia with the second overall pick in 2012. With Buxton anchoring a promising, young outfield with Eddie Rosario in left and Max Kepler in right, the Twins have the building blocks for a group that can greatly aid a pitching staff that has languished at the bottom of the league the last several years.
They’re confident enough in their instincts and range that they’ve decided to position the three of them closer to the infield to give them a better chance of making catches like Buxton’s. The reasoning behind the riskier alignment is that their speed is good enough to track down deep balls or back each other up in case a line drive eludes an outstretched glove.
“We’ve been working hard on these guys taking chances and making plays. We’ve kind of changed little philosophies on shallowing them up a little bit to give them a chance to use their skills,” manager Paul Molitor said.
New coach Jeff Pickler came up with the “raindrops” motto during a drill in spring training when he set up cones and hit fungoes to the outfielders and challenged them to catch every ball in the air.
“They can cover a lot of ground. They can make all the plays. They can all run and throw,” Molitor said. “Fearlessness. It’s a good combination of athletes.”
Growing pains were plenty for the trio last year, with a collective 120 games played in Triple-A as a reminder.
“The talent’s there, mixed in with their learning and their knowledge and their experience from last year,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “I think they’re going to do just fine.”
As evidenced by his 0-for-5 performance at the plate with three strikeouts, Buxton has a long way to go to catch, no pun intended, his offense up to his defense. But Molitor wouldn’t have put him in the third spot in the batting order if he weren’t comfortable with the strides the 23-year-old has made.
“He’s letting it fly,” Molitor said. “He’s trying to be smart about it, but to have your talent flourish, first of all, you’ve got to take restraints off yourself as far as feeling like you’re trying to meet other peoples’ expectations all the time.”