After 2 years of post-surgery recovery (ACL), Lewis returns to the field

March 18th, 2022

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- The last time Royce Lewis played a competitive baseball game was two years and eight days ago. He homered off Zack Wheeler that day in a spring game against the Phillies.

Then came the pandemic. Then came the torn ACL, the surgery and the recovery.

Lewis worked hard, day after day, at the Twins' facility in southwest Florida to push his way back. And on Friday, just an hour north of where he put in all that diligent rehab work, he finally found his way back into a competitive baseball game for the first time since his world turned upside-down -- twice.

"Days like this and probably his next game and his next game are just about his confidence and the very beginnings of getting some timing back," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "We love results. With a guy coming back from that injury, it's more about confidence than anything else."

It's funny that Baldelli thinks his organization's No. 1 prospect needs to find confidence, of all things. Just ask the 22-year-old shortstop what he was hoping to accomplish in this first game.

"Hit four homers," Lewis joked. (He only got two at-bats.)

Lewis struck out swinging in the first inning and hit a soft grounder back to the mound in the third as the Twins fell to the Braves, 3-1, at CoolToday Park -- no homers off staff aces this time. He cleanly fielded a pair of grounders, including one deep in the hole to his right, and caught a pop fly before he was replaced in the field in the fourth inning.

Consider all that Lewis has been through since he last played a Minor League game on Sept. 2, 2019. Coming off a difficult campaign, the former No. 1 pick was named MVP of the Arizona Fall League but was unable to build off that the following spring due to COVID-19. He felt great about his swing work at the alternate training site -- but was unable to build off that, too, as he underwent surgery for the torn ACL on Feb. 26, 2021.

Even so, he said he hadn't been counting down the days until Friday, when he batted leadoff and started at shortstop. It doesn't even feel like it's been two years since he last played a game, he said. He wasn't thinking about what this moment could have been like.

"Uh, actually, no," he said. "Just thinking about how I wanted to come back stronger than ever. That’s the only thing I was thinking about. Playing in a game was just a bonus. This is just fun. I had so much fun today. I wanted to play more, but obviously, there’s other guys that have got to get some time, too."

It's a very Lewis-esque view of the world to call this process a "blessing," even after two full years of development at a critical time were effectively thrown away by factors outside his control. All he could do during his recovery was lift, eat, sleep and hope he'd get better. Even with his normally infinite pool of optimism, he found some challenges in that.

"I told people at the six-month mark, I felt like, 'Oh man, this is going to be harder than I thought. I don't know if I'll get back,'" he said. "Seven-month mark, I don't know what happened, God just said, 'Nah, we're good.' I felt, like, amazing. I didn't have to think about it at all."

Lewis doesn't need to think about the knee at all, and that's where he wants to be. All of the injury talk is in the rearview mirror now, and that's what he'll tell anyone who asks -- media, teammates, coaches, physical therapists. He's had too much confidence in himself throughout this process to worry about that, to the point where he said in the immediate aftermath of the injury last spring that he'd come back in 2022 "scary and spooky, man."

Now he's the ultimate wild card in camp. It's really tough to know what to expect from an extremely talented but still raw prospect in a big league environment any spring -- let alone a prospect who has missed two full years of live at-bats. The Twins need a starting shortstop after trading for and then trading away Isiah Kiner-Falefa, but it won't be Lewis, who posted a .661 OPS across High-A and Double-A in 2019 as he continued to tweak his swing.

It's Baldelli's job, of course, to worry about Lewis' confidence this spring. With many ballplayers, that'd be at least a lingering concern in the aftermath of such an injury.

With Lewis, that confidence hardly wavered at all.

"I feel like I have a chance to start in the big leagues this year and make a difference," Lewis said. "I'm a difference-maker. I'm a ballplayer. I'll play wherever. Whatever they need me to do, I'll do it. I'm here to contribute and try to make the team win. This team is so amazing. It's ready to win and it's hungry."