Alex Kirilloff, who hadn’t played in a game since Sept. 8, 2019 — and that one was for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos — made his Major League debut in a playoff elimination game for the Twins on Tuesday.
Because this is how things work, Kirilloff’s first at bat came with the bases loaded and two outs in the crucial bottom of the first. He flied out to center — part of a day in which he hardly looked overmatched while hitting the ball hard a couple times, but one in which he could not write a Hollywood ending to the Twins’ sad playoff script.
Perhaps the most amazing thing: Kirilloff making his debut was not even the most interesting part of the Twins’ outfield alignment. That distinction belongs to the man he replaced in the lineup, Byron Buxton.
It’s now Friday, two days since the Twins were eliminated (and helped the AL Central go from three to zero playoff teams with alarming speed).
And we still don’t know why the Twins’ most important player didn’t start their most important game.
We know that Buxton, who led the team in wins above replacement, had a shoulder injury during the season. We know he was hit in the head with a pitch on the last Friday of the regular season. But he had been cleared and played in Tuesday’s Game 1 loss, going 1 for 4 with a stolen base (and three strikeouts) in the loss.
But even after two prominent Twins decisionmakers were asked and talked about it, we still have very little clue why Buxton didn’t start Wednesday — nor, perhaps more puzzlingly, why he pinch ran in the game (disastrously, at that) after not starting.
Before the game Wednesday, manager Rocco Baldelli offered this: “Buck’s not at 100 percent today. He’s not doing his best. I know everyone’s going to want to know every possible detail about what that means, and as of right now, a noon game, I’m not going to be able to go into those details.”
OK, but it wasn’t clarified after the game.
And Thursday, when Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey was asked about it, there was no further clarity. “He wasn’t feeling great when he came in,” Falvey said. “And that’s kind of, that’s what he said, that’s what we discussed internally. At the end of the day, he’s gone through some challenges more recently. But that was kind of the crux of it, and the way he described it. I don’t have much more to say outside of that.”
Vague answers like that invite speculation, and without clarity from Buxton — who didn’t respond to a text message Thursday from the Star Tribune’s La Velle E. Neal III — none of the conclusions are positive.
*If the Twins thought Buxton was healthy enough to play but he didn’t feel that way, it’s not a good moment in that relationship.
*If Buxton merely re-aggravated his shoulder problem, there would be no reason for the Twins to be so vague about his injury.
*If Buxton was experiencing concussion-like symptoms — perhaps aggravated by playing Tuesday — or experiencing something unrelated to either the hit by pitch or shoulder injury, the vagueness might be understandable. What wouldn’t be nearly as understandable is still using Buxton as a pinch runner Wednesday.
Even in a desperate situation — down one, eighth inning, pinch running for the slow-footed Nelson Cruz — if Buxton wasn’t healthy enough to start why was he healthy enough to run? Buxton, as we all saw, came out wearing sunglasses and was picked off in a very uncharacteristic play for him. (By the way: speedy Jake Cave might have been an option … but he had recently entered the game for the ejected Eddie Rosario).
So we are left with two official answers for what happened but zero good answers — and a mystery to carry into a frustrating offseason.