Buxton Hits Walk-Off Grand Slam In Kernels Win
By Jeff Johnson, Reporter
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – His first grand slam, his first walk-off hit, his first postgame shaving cream pie. Yet another step out the door here in Cedar Rapids and toward Fort Myers.
Honestly, there's probably not much more Byron Buxton can do at the low-Class A level. The 19-year-old phenom sent Veterans Memorial Stadium into a tizzy Thursday night with a towering drive down the left-field line with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning that gave the Cedar Rapids Kernels a 7-6 win over Burlington.
"A great feeling," Buxton said. "We played as a team tonight, came up at the end and won it all."
Cedar Rapids (27-12) trailed, 6-3, but Burlington closer Jairo Diaz (a Kernel last season) hit Travis Harrison leading off, allowed a one-out double to Candido Pimentel, then hit pinch-hitter Tyler Grimes. He threw a mid-90s fastball low for ball one, then grooved one inner-half that "Buck" got every single piece of.
Buxton clapped his hands at home plate in mini-celebration before beginning his trot around the bases. He was mobbed by teammates at home plate, then was the recipient of the shaving cream pie from teammate Mason Melotakis while doing a live television interview near the Kernels dugout.
"He looked like he was ready for it. He hit it a ton," said Kernels Manager Jake Mauer. "That was fun to watch. A no-doubter. I think the biggest thing to me was as a young 19-year-old, to be in that situation, the first pitch was down, and he took it. He spit on that pitch. There are a lot of guys in that clubhouse that would have swung at it."
Buxton reached base via hit or walk in his first 29 games for the Kernels but has been human of late, coming into Thursday night hitting .250 over his previous 10 games. A 2-for-5 night raised his batting average to .343, he leads the MWL by a wide margin in runs, is first in hits, second in extra-base hits, third in on-base percentage, fourth in slugging and third in stolen bases.
Opposing pitchers are throwing him differently than they did a month ago, but perhaps his biggest adjustment has been dealing with all of the rapidly growing attention he is receiving nationwide. For instance, Fox Sports North in the Twin Cities was in Cedar Rapids this week to film a piece on him.
He's being mobbed everywhere he goes for autographs, and that included after Thursday night's game. It would seem the off-field pressure is mounting on a kid from southern Georgia who is quiet and reserved by nature, the antithesis of former Kernels wunderkind Mike Trout, who was outgoing by nature and seemed to love the attention.
"I think I'm handling it pretty well. I'm not letting it get to me or affect my game," Buxton said. "I'm just going out having fun playing, that's it. It is very tough. You've got to try and stay focused. You've got to grind it out every day."
"He's cool as a cucumber. I don't think he's being affected by all the attention," Mauer said.
The manager said he thinks things are tougher on Buxton than even they were for his own brother. Joe and Jake Mauer were teammates with Quad Cities of the Midwest League during Joe's first full season of pro ball in 2002.
"It's kind of interesting because it has changed," Jake Mauer said. "When Joe was here, first overall (pick), he didn't face the same attention, I would say, as Buxton has. I would say it's different ... Now, I think, people pay more attention to what's going on in the minor leagues. You've got the Internet, the Twitter machine and stuff.
"Everybody knows everything about everybody, for the most part. That has a lot to do with it. But I think the biggest thing that he knows is he has to go out and play. He doesn't have to change who he is. He just needs to go play the game. And he can do that, without a doubt."