November 30, 2023

Royce Lewis‘ father, William, sat near the back of the family section behind home plate and could only shake his head. “He would do something like that,” he told himself. Derek Falvey, the Minnesota Twins‘ president of baseball operations, turned to his 7-year-old son Jack, wearing a cream-colored Royce Lewis jersey gifted to him for these playoffs, and found himself at a loss for words.

“If you write that as a fiction story,” Falvey later said, “everyone would say that’s too much fantasy. ‘That’s not real. That can’t be real.’ You would think it’s fake.”

Twenty-four hours before he became a certified Twins legend, hitting the two home runs that set the tone in the victory that ended an unprecedented 18-game postseason losing streak, Lewis didn’t even know if he would play.

Another ailment was threatening to keep him off the field for Game 1 of the Twins’ wild-card series against the Toronto Blue Jays. This time it was a hamstring strain that had popped up in September — which followed the oblique strain from midseason, which followed the ACL tear from last year, which followed the ACL tear from the year before that.

When he returned in time to homer in each of his first two postseason plate appearances and electrify a desperate Target Field crowd, his mom swore that fate was at play.

“We’re big believers in ‘things happen for a reason,'” Cindy Lewis said in a phone conversation. “But there’s also a part of it that, everything Royce has endured to this point, early in his career, with both ACL surgeries and then the oblique, all these little hiccups along the way — he genuinely realizes how quickly the game that he loves so much can be taken away from you.”

Lewis is a rookie at 24, limited to designated hitter, but the Twins — coming off the franchise’s first playoff-round victory in 21 years and getting ready to host the Houston Astros on Tuesday afternoon in Game 3 of an American League Division Series tied at 1-1 — are rallying around him.

He’s approaching it with gratitude.

“This is my dream, right?” Lewis said. “I think it’s a lot of very young kids’ dreams to play in the big leagues. I just want to be that person that shows I don’t take it for granted. I have fun doing it, even on a quote-unquote bad day at the plate or whatever it may be, your team loses. It’s so special to be part of this game. This game has given me everything in my life. It’s really taught me how to be a great human being, and I feel like I’m a much better person because of it.”

It was that type of outlook that first drew the Twins to Lewis when they possessed the No. 1 overall pick in a 2017 draft with no clear-cut headliner. Falvey had been hired the prior October and needed to distinguish among a group that included Lewis, Hunter Greene, Brendan McKay and Kyle Wright, four highly touted prospects with similarly high ceilings.

Projecting amateurs is a task that befuddles even the most cutting-edge organizations. They’re measuring not just how certain tools will translate several levels higher but trying to decipher important character traits from young men who are not yet fully formed — how they’ll make adjustments, how they’ll handle pressure, how they’ll overcome adversity. It’s an inexact science littered with land mines and biases.

But something resonated with Falvey and other key members of the Twins’ front office when they sat down with Lewis and his parents. They noticed unshakable confidence but also unbridled optimism. There was eagerness and persistence, but also curiosity. Lewis kept asking those who had watched him closely for ways to improve, displaying uncommon understanding and maturity for a high school player in that setting. If anybody could shoulder the expectations of going No. 1 overall, the Twins thought, it was Lewis.

“I can’t sit here and tell you we met up and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this kid’s going to power through anything he ever faces in the world,'” Falvey said. “But I will say this — when you think about what is at the root, or the foundation, of somebody who has perseverance, you can pick up pretty early on around their mindset, the way they think about challenges, the way they want to get better. What we saw in the draft was a kid who was eager to get better.”

Lewis, who has gone 4-for-15 with three home runs and three walks in these playoffs, was bursting with talent early in his minor league career. But he was noticeably raw. He committed 41 errors in 225 minor league games from 2018 to 2019, most of them at shortstop, and struggled offensively through most of the latter season. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the minor leagues in 2020, then Lewis tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the first time in February of 2021, missing the entirety of the ensuing season. He returned to the field in April of 2022, as a 23-year-old without any competitive at-bats in a stretch of nearly 30 months, and hit everywhere he played, batting .313/.405/.534 in 34 Triple-A games and .300/.317/.550 in 12 major league games. Then came his biggest setback yet.

Falvey was in his Target Field suite on the afternoon of May 29, 2022, when Lewis ranged toward the center-field wall, made a leaping catch up against it and crumpled to the ground immediately thereafter, grabbing at the same right knee that had just endured an arduous rehab. Falvey’s stomach, he said, “was at my throat.” He immediately took the elevator down to the clubhouse and was told by doctors that, though additional imaging was needed, a re-tear of the ACL was likely.

“I got emotional,” Falvey said. “I could feel it.”

Falvey walked into the clubhouse and found Lewis sitting on a chair, his body slightly turned. The patented smile was gone, replaced by a distant, vacant look. Falvey hugged him. He told him they were going to figure it out and that there was a path and that the team would be with him every step of the way. Twelve days later, after multiple evaluations determined that another surgery was necessary, Falvey noticed a completely different mindset. Lewis kept talking about how he would benefit from the familiarity of the rehab process and how he had already proved that he could handle major league pitching. Rather than get bogged down by the toll of another long recovery and the uncertainty that would follow, Lewis seemed eager to attack it all.

“He just doesn’t believe the bad is coming,” Falvey said. “We’re all naturally inclined sometimes to feel that potential negativity in our world, and Royce is just like, ‘Nope, there’s good ahead. It’s coming in some way, shape or form.’ He’s the most positive, optimistic believer that I’ve probably ever been around in baseball.”

Lewis comes from a family of athletes. His mother was a collegiate softball player. His father played football and baseball through junior college, then spent 30 years working in the food industry and now co-owns The Winery, an upscale restaurant with three locations in Southern California, one of which hosted the Twins’ front office leading up to the 2017 draft. William believes Lewis’ positivity stems partly from watching him work.

“In our business, when it’s easy it’s still hard,” William said. “That’s what people don’t understand — the restaurant business is hard when it looks easy to everybody else, and then when it’s five or 10 times harder and we have to roll up our sleeves, we just keep plugging away and doing it, staying in a positive light. I don’t know how; that’s just my personality. And hopefully he takes some of that from me.”

When Lewis returned 11 months after his second ACL tear, he slashed .333/.364/.452 as a major leaguer in the month of June. After an oblique strain kept him out from the start of July until the middle of August, he OPS’d .992 in 32 games, including a record-breaking stretch of four grand slams in 18 games. His emergence came a little later and was a lot more staggered than expected, but it has been just as impactful as anybody could have anticipated.

In a 70-game regular-season sample spread out over 17 months, Lewis slashed .307/.364/.549 with 17 home runs and 57 RBIs. On a rate basis, his 2.9 FanGraphs wins above replacement would add up to 6.7 over a full season. It’s the same total Atlanta Braves first baseman Matt Olson contributed this year — even though Lewis has adjusted to new positions, overcome a litany of injuries and only just begun to understand what it’s like to be a major leaguer.

LaTroy Hawkins, the former Twins reliever and current special assistant who scouted top amateurs leading up to the 2017 draft, likes to say Lewis’ potential has been “delayed, not denied.”

His path was exceedingly rocky, but the Twins still see the same star-level player they projected out six years ago.

“I think we’ve learned our lesson about trying to limit anything on Royce,” Falvey said. “Wherever he wants to take it, he’s going to put his work in. Obviously the game is going to respond and he’s going to have to make adjustments and respond to what pitchers are doing and the way they’re trying to attack him. But he’s shown already that he can persist through that.”

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