December 5, 2022

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'I'm young and I'm having fun': Lewis' first HR a grand slam

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MINNEAPOLIS – It sure feels like Royce Lewis’ time could be now.

Sure, the club’s No. 1 prospect was likely promoted to the big leagues well ahead of schedule due to injuries and a 40-man roster crunch. Sure, the Twins are paying Carlos Correa $35.1 million this year, and he’s on the mend from the bone bruise to his right middle finger. Sure, Lewis missed the last two full seasons of Minor League ball due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a torn right ACL.

Considering all that, when Lewis first arrived in the big leagues exactly a week ago, it was probably safe to think his stay might be short-lived. But every step of the way so far, Lewis has looked like he belongs. The next chapter came Friday, when he crushed a grand slam for his first career homer and received a curtain call from his raucous home fans after capping a nine-run rally in the fifth inning that surged the Twins to a 12-8 win over the Guardians at Target Field.

“I think it was pretty much everything I could have imagined and more, you know?” Lewis said. “This whole debut, playing with these guys has just been truly special. … Everything that’s been happening has been truly special beyond belief.”

Lewis, ranked No. 44 among all prospects by MLB Pipeline, joined Danny Valencia (July 26, 2010) as the only Twins to hit a grand slam for a first career homer, when he smashed a Bryan Shaw cutter an estimated 395 feet into the left-field bleachers to spot the Twins an 11-2 lead. He’d already crushed a double to the left-center-field gap earlier in the inning, coming around to score on Max Kepler’s RBI single.

When Lewis returned to the dugout following the slam, just about every teammate and staff member was waiting to give him a high-five or a hug — starting with Correa, who was waiting at the top step.

“[Correa was] maybe more [excited] than me,” Lewis said. “I was definitely fired up, though. It’s really cool. … I think they all were really elated for me, and I just had so much fun just celebrating with my teammates who I really love and care about, on and off the field.”

To properly understand the scope of the excitement of the moment for Lewis and the Twins, you have to appreciate the arduous journey that got him here.

After being drafted No. 1 overall in 2017, observers questioned the long swing with the big leg kick and the ability to stick at shortstop — and that was before he struggled mightily across High-A and Double-A in 2019 and then lost the next two seasons, entering ’22 as a wild card for whom a clean bill of health and playing every day in Triple-A would have been considered a success.

So, here’s the big question: Can there be a place for Lewis on this roster upon Correa’s eventual return? Can he force the team’s hand?

Lewis has hit safely in six of his seven big league games, including two doubles and the homer. He tagged three balls in excess of 100 mph on Friday, including a 114 mph lineout that marked the Twins’ hardest-hit ball of the season. He’s 8-for-25, slashing .320/.320/.520 as a big leaguer, with only four strikeouts.

Twins manager Rocco Baldelli didn’t offer a clear commitment, noting that such decisions are always context-dependent — and it’s difficult to know what consideration could arise next to impact the roster. He noted that the Twins have generally discussed the possibility that Lewis could expand his defensive skillset beyond shortstop, but qualified that as more of a “conversation for the future.”

“I see a place for him on the team, certainly long term,” Baldelli said. “It’s hard to know exactly what’s coming and when. I would never speculate … but he’s certainly contributing to us winning games. He’s got a lot of ability. He’s put himself in a great position. There’s not much more the young man can do.”

At no point has Lewis looked clearly out of his element in the big leagues, but Lewis still sees plenty of improvement in his future, and he’s not even necessarily trying to force the team’s hand, he says.

“No, no, not at all,” Lewis said. “My goal is to continue to grow each and every day and have fun playing the game that I love. It doesn’t matter where I’m at. … There’s a lot of room for growth for me. I’m young and I’m having fun and I’m very anxious. I’ve just got to slow it down sometimes.”

For now, they’re all just enjoying the show — and they’ll worry about the decision when the time comes.

“You don’t see those things too often from a young, wiry middle infielder who hits the ball like that,” Baldelli said. “It’s very exciting, but you don’t want to put too much on his shoulders. You just want him to come in, relax, and play the game.”

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