Over and over again, Royce Lewis expressed the same feeling. He wanted to be with the Minnesota Twins. He wanted to be on the field — or even just on the team.
That’s what he said when he got over the hump and reached his MLB debut in 2022, five years after he was the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB Draft, having overcome an up-and-down minor-league career, the lost 2020 season and a torn ACL in 2021.
“I truly thought it was going to take a few more years,” Lewis said at the time. “I can’t wait to show off my skills and have fun and hopefully get some wins for the team.”
That’s what he said this spring, as he worked to return from a brutal second ACL injury that cut him down just 12 games into that debut in 2022.
“I just want to be a part of the team,” he said. “This team is really good, and I think that’s my main goal is just to be able to make the team. I think it’d be a tough year for me if I’m stuck in Triple-A all year or Double-A or injured again. Those are my goals: stay healthy and make this team.”
That’s what he said just two days ago, when his status for the AL wild-card series against the Toronto Blue Jays was up in the air because of a hamstring injury.
“I would love to do anything at this point. Just based on feel, I think DH would be great. That would be a big step. I’d love to be out there, but I also don’t want to be a hindrance to this team at all,” Lewis said Monday. “If I’m a cheerleader, that’d be great. If I’m hitting homers, that’d also be great.”
As it turns out, Lewis was indeed hitting homers. Plural.
The 24-year-old slotted into the Twins lineup for Tuesday’s Game 1 and went deep in each of his first two at-bats, injecting into his team the electricity and production that have been staples of his sporadic big-league time thus far. Driving in all three Minnesota runs in a 3-1 victory, Lewis cut through the dark clouds of unfortunate injuries and ill-fated Octobers as the Twins brought their 18-game postseason losing streak to a cathartic end.
Far from the days of wanting to be “part of the team,” Lewis is now inextricably tied to this generation of the Minnesota Twins, embodying their frustrations, their trials and also their potential.
‘I would do anything for this team. They know that’
“Potential” and “ability” start out as, well, twins. They grow side-by-side as a talented young player rises through the amateur ranks, gets drafted and begins a climb through the minor leagues. At a certain point, though, they diverge. Ability sets out on its own and stands alone. Potential still has all the same features but suffers by point of comparison — the stunted, hard-luck sibling.
Few clubs have watched their pride and joy teeter so undeservedly toward the pain of untapped potential as often as the Twins. Being on the field, as simple as it sounds, has been an existential challenge for some of the franchise’s most integral players.
Lewis battled back from the two ACL surgeries to triumphant success in the big leagues, but even his 2023 breakout was interrupted by an oblique injury and the hamstring problem that put his postseason in doubt. Byron Buxton’s repeated setbacks robbed him of his ability to patrol center field this year and ultimately kept him off the playoff roster. Carlos Correa, back with the Twins after long-term fitness concerns turned his free agency into a circus, limped through his worst full season this year due to a painful foot injury. Managing and trying to minimize the shadow of all the undeserved but undeniable pain is Rocco Baldelli, whose own playing career was cut short by a health condition that sapped his energy and durability.
Lewis has been open about the grueling rehab from his second ACL injury last year. Stuck on the couch in the early days after the operation, with his mom looking after him, he found himself in tears from the pain and from the daunting road ahead. And there was no disguising the mental slippery slope when he exited a game in September due to the hamstring strain.
Within a week of the injury, though, a determined positivity returned.
“We’re trying to work as hard as we can to get back as fast as we can and obviously make a push for the playoffs,” Lewis said Sept. 23. “I’m optimistic for the best. You know me. I’m always happy and positive. I’m positive I could play tomorrow, though, right? I would do anything for this team. They know that. I’m going to work hard.”
All taken in the top two picks of the draft, all once elite prospects, the trio of Lewis, Buxton and Correa should give the Twins a sky-high ceiling. But they have never been healthy simultaneously. And Lewis, despite playing only 58 games, logged the most WAR among the trio in the 2023 regular season.
Indeed, Minnesota’s first playoff berth since 2020 was more attributable to a terrific, revamped starting rotation featuring Pablo Lopez and Sonny Gray and the bevy of less-heralded position players who carved out winning roles. As the 2023 Twins rallied behind Willi Castro, Edouard Julien and Matt Wallner and claimed a down AL Central, Lewis got MRIs and rode the stationary bike.
All for Tuesday, the day when being on the field would no longer be enough.
‘It just felt right giving this to them’
The players in the Twins clubhouse couldn’t be faulted for the franchise’s 18 straight playoff losses, for the years of disappointment or the little-brother complex with the New York Yankees — least of all Lewis and starting pitcher Pablo Lopez, who played in none of those games. Yet on Tuesday, they felt the Target Field crowd craving release like a big family looking on.
“This game meant a lot to us for many, many reasons, and we just wanted to put an end to something that was very important to our beloved fans,” Lopez said. “Like, the fans have been so great to us. They support us. They root for us no matter the situation.
“It just felt right giving this to them.”
Not overly familiar with the DH role — Lewis rose through the minors as a shortstop and has mostly played third base in 2023 — he said he took advice from Buxton, the star who couldn’t make the roster, on how to stay ready for his moment. He found his blood pumping both from his dugout routine and from the atmosphere.
“My heart was beating — it was the most nervous game, exciting game I’ve ever played in my life,” Lewis said afterward. “It was so much fun.”
And with two mighty swings off Kevin Gausman, the exuberant Lewis struck back at the dark clouds lingering over the Twins and continued his penchant for strong first impressions. Now the 10th player ever to homer twice in his first MLB postseason game, Lewis was already notable for whacking five grand slams in his young career and homering in his very first at-bat as a professional.
Though he throttled it down on the base paths to protect his hamstring Tuesday, Lewis — who batted .309 with 15 homers and 155 wRC+ in 239 regular-season plate appearances this year — has the most explosive bat in the Minnesota lineup right now. His presence makes a difference.
“I’ve tried to stretch my vocabulary and drop all the great adjectives,” Baldelli said after the Game 1 victory. “I can’t believe sometimes the things that he’s doing — they’re that impressive.”
Correa’s presence mattered in Game 1, too. Having gutted his way onto the roster for his first postseason since departing the Astros, the October-tested shortstop made an incredible, improvisational defensive play at a key moment.
Granted, neither two homers nor a great throw home nor a single win in a wild-card series will make the painful past go away. Those things won’t heal scars or reallocate precious time lost to them.
But by making it onto that field and doing what he did, Lewis made tomorrow feel lighter, brighter. He restored the Twins’ hopes and faith in potential.