MINNEAPOLIS -- Trying to get Royce Lewis not to go all-out on a play in any normal year would already make for a hopeless cause. Trying to hold him back in his first live game action following a long recovery from a torn right ACL?
Good luck with that.
Three weeks ago, during instructional league play in Florida, the rehabbing No. 1 prospect in the Twins' organization got a surprise opportunity to play in the final two games of the league calendar -- with the restriction that he was only allowed to swing and not run out of the batter's box.
He started running out a ground ball anyway, and he was greeted with a sight he'd never seen in his life: The first-base coach giving him a big "stop" sign with two hands raised in the air.
"I even went back into the dugout and joked, I’m like, 'How many of you guys have ever seen a first-base coach give the stop sign?'" Lewis said. "They started laughing, 'I don’t know.' That was pretty funny, but at least I knew I was good when I was running out of the box pretty hard, those couple first four steps there."
You can't blame Lewis for trying, considering how difficult the last eight months of recovery have been for the former No. 1 pick, who was diagnosed with the torn ACL in February, underwent surgery and had even his indefatigable optimism and cheer challenged during his lengthy road back to the diamond.
All that was worth it when his coaching staff surprised him with the opportunity for that game action before he recently headed home to the Dallas area. He now anticipates a normal offseason after affirming his ability to hit, field and run close to his usual self towards the end of his recovery period at the Twins' facility in Ft. Myers, Fla., where he hopes to return in mid-January to begin his ramp-up for the '22 campaign.
"For four months, I was in, pretty much, it felt like misery," Lewis said. "I don't know if it was depression or what you call it, but it was really hard to fight through all those kinds of challenges mentally, because the only thing I could do was putt putt."
Consider this: Lewis, then 21, was coming off a season of development he felt really good about at the Twins' alternate training site when the 2020 Minor League season was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic. He knew '21 would be an important year to show off his results considering his struggles at Double-A when he last saw the field.
Instead of taking his final steps of development towards the Majors, he couldn't even properly golf or kick a ball, let alone dream of any baseball activity. Desperate for a competitive outlet, he'd drag teammates and friends mini-golfing three times a week. (By the end of his rehab stint, he claims he was regularly shooting 10-under or better on the par-45 course.)
In the meantime, he did everything the Twins let him do at the facility.
A week and a half after the surgery, they let him start a weightlifting program, six days a week. ("Those are more movement-based, trying to keep my body still, stretched out and loose so I'm not tight all the time, literally, like Arnold Schwarzenegger or something," Lewis said.)
He started walking on the early side, five weeks after the surgery. A week and a half later, after he began kneeling drills, he started taking ground balls every morning from a knee. Nearly four months following his procedure, he progressed to very simple ground balls outside, on the field, with his lateral movement severely limited.
Slowly, they loosened the restrictions. Lewis said that he faced live pitching throughout instructs -- including plenty of at-bats against top pitching prospect Jhoan Duran -- and a week ago, at the end of that period, he was making rangy, showy plays at shortstop. He still doesn't feel that running and jumping off the knee are back to full strength, but his latest action convinced him that he'll be ready to go when players report to Spring Training.
"That was kind of like a milestone for me of like, 'Yeah, if I could do this now at eight months, then I'm definitely going to be feeling good at 12, which is another four months 'til spring,'" Lewis said. "So that's that's all kind of in my head. Like a good thing and a good, telltale sign."
"I felt this before, and this certifies this to some degree, professional athletes who are really good athletes, they just recover differently than the rest of us," president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said at the end of the season.
During that recovery time, Lewis also said he focused on learning how to game plan against pitchers, watching film to formulate his strategies against big league pitchers and feeling encouraged when he'd see Twins hitters take similar approaches at the plate against those hurlers.
As for getting his feel back at the plate? Lewis points to the homer he hit against Duran, against whom he felt much less settled when the pair faced off at the alternate training site in '20. Thanks to all that weightlifting during his down time, he also felt he was hitting the ball with more authority.
He'll need that for an important '22 season in which he primarily hopes to show that he'll be able to play every day without restrictions but will also need to show an improvement from the .236/.290/.371 line he posted in 127 games across High-A and Double-A in '19 -- though he did follow that up with an MVP showing in the Arizona Fall League.
Even at 22, Lewis still implied that he could still be one or two years away from the Majors, and he could need a much more consistent track record of success in the high Minors before he'll enter the MLB mix, even with the Twins' pressing need for a more consistent solution at shortstop. In any case, he'll have to be added to the 40-man roster in the coming weeks to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, leaving him on the cusp of the Majors.
While he was sidelined, his position got a bit more crowded with the acquisition of shortstop/outfielder Austin Martin from the Blue Jays at the Trade Deadline, but Lewis maintained his No. 1 prospect status through the injury and the uncertainties of the last two years -- and he's eager for the chance to finally show that he still deserves it.
"The pros of not playing two years is my body is going to be fully recovered and be a lot stronger," Lewis said. "My hunger to play is even more than it was before, which is kind of scary for opponents. And my desire to win is that much greater because I haven't won in two years."