Royce rolls on: Twins SS Lewis enjoys 1st game in 2+ years

VENICE, Fla. (AP) — Royce Lewis joked that he wanted to hit four home runs in his first game in more than two years. He also hoped for several opportunities to make defensive plays.

One out of two goals isn’t bad.

The Minnesota Twins prospect went 0 for 2 in a 3-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Grapefruit League exhibition play on Friday afternoon, batting leadoff and playing shortstop in his first live action since March 10, 2020.

Lewis, the first overall pick in the 2017 amateur draft, missed the 2021 season as he recovered from surgery last February to repair a torn right anterior cruciate ligament.

“I don’t even think about the knee,” Lewis said. “I think the best part about my injury is that it’s kind of behind me. It’s in the rearview mirror.”

Two springs ago, the Twins were hopeful that Lewis had big things in store for his immediate baseball future. He was named the Arizona Fall League MVP award winner in 2019 and expecting to see increased playing time in his second big league camp with the potential to reach the majors later that season.

Lewis homered off Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler in the March 10, 2020, exhibition game. Just a few days later, spring training was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lewis spent all summer at the team’s alternate facility in St. Paul, Minnesota, but never got promoted to the Twins. There were no minor league games to play in that year.

Prior to arriving at spring training in 2021, Lewis experienced some soreness in his right knee. But it didn’t seem to him like anything out of the ordinary until his physical exam revealed he had suffered a torn ACL. He had surgery on Feb. 26, 2021, and spent the rest of the season rehabbing at the team’s year-round facility in Fort Myers, Florida.

His absence from the field lasted until a week ago, when Major League Baseball ended the 99-day lockout. Lewis had been added to the Twins’ 40-man roster in November, which prevented him from having contact with team officials until the new collective bargaining agreement was reached.

Naturally, Lewis was a little nervous when he returned to the lineup on Friday. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli implored Lewis to simplify his approach and not worry about the results.

Lewis struck out in his first at-bat and hit a weak grounder to first in his second trip to the plate. In the field, he caught a popup, fielded two grounders and was the cutoff man on a second-inning double by Atlanta’s William Contreras.

“When you’re playing in a ballgame, you have to be a master of anything that comes your way. That’s why the game action is important,” Baldelli said. “There’s nothing that’s going to simulate this.”

Lewis’ teammate Alex Kirilloff also returned to action at first base on Friday. He finished 0 for 2.

Kirilloff batted .251 with eight home runs in 231 plate appearances for the Twins in 2021 before undergoing season-ending surgery on his right wrist in July. Kirilloff said his wrist feels good now, but he needed a monthlong shutdown in November.

“It wasn’t a matter if I needed the surgery, it was just a matter of when to do it,” Kirilloff said. “If I would have waited until after the season, I’m not sure I would have been ready now. So I’m glad I got it done when I did.”

Lewis is glad he’s cleared all the mental hurdles during the lengthy rehab that kept him in Fort Myers through the end of last October. In late September, Lewis noticed he no longer worried about his knee when he was running.

While his first two at-bats on Friday didn’t result in any longballs, Lewis has the same confidence in his approach as he does in the health of his knee.

“The timing will come,” Lewis said. “I was excited. I just saw the ball really well.”

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