The Twins' most impactful at-bat at Target Field on Wednesday took place not during their night game with the Athletics, but shortly after noon, before anyone was watching. That's when Royce Lewis, the Twins' best hitter in September and biggest question mark for October, connected with a fastball and drove it into the empty left-field bleachers, a home run that didn't count on the scoreboard but could have big implications for the postseason.
"I feel really good at the plate," said Lewis, the 24-year-old rookie who suffered a strained left hamstring while fouling off a pitch in Cincinnati last week. "It was just good for me, honestly, to know that I can still see the ball. We faced some really good pitchers [Wednesday]. That's always a good sign, when you can see their sliders, changeups, curveballs, whatever they're throwing, and still feel confident up there."
Lewis, Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa — each of them on the injured list but hoping to be added to Minnesota's roster for the wild-card series which begins next Tuesday — took place in a simulated game before most of their teammates arrived at the ballpark. Nick Gordon and Joey Gallo also took part, facing Cole Sands, Jordan Balazovic and Jorge Alcala over five half-innings, and each came through the "game" with no physical setbacks.
Lewis, who said he went 1-for-4, couldn't contain his excitement over the prospect that his hamstring might heal enough for him to play next week. Of course, he's perpetually upbeat.
"We're trending in the right direction. Every day I'm just a little bit better," Lewis said. "That's the goal, hopefully to get to the spot we need for the playoffs, to at least manage and tolerate whatever [pain] I'm going to have."
He hasn't done any running yet, only hitting and playing catch. There's still time to get some work fielding his position at third base, but if he's not up to it, at least his progress gives the Twins hope that he can serve as designated hitter for the first round.
"He wouldn't be up there hitting unless he was doing significantly better," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "Can he play third base, can he run the bases? I'm not sure. But he's definitely doing better. … I think he'd be a candidate to DH, yeah."
Lewis posted a 1.022 on-base plus slugging percentage in September, after all, hitting six homers and driving in 23 runs in 18 games before getting hurt. He's putting in seven-hour days of rehab and treatment to address the injury — "I tell people, rehab is way harder than just coming in and playing the games," he said with a laugh — and would welcome the chance to bat in the middle of the lineup in the postseason, of course, even if it means spending the rest of the game in the dugout.
"You're not doing as much in the field, on your feet as much. You wouldn't be in a position where you're running as much," Lewis said. "So yeah, it would be a little bit easier. But it's tough to say where we're going to be at in another week. It's six days [after] the injury right now, and if we keep trending in the right direction, maybe another six days, we'll keep going up and up."
Lewis' health could impact whether Buxton has a postseason role, at least in the first round. If the rookie cannot play the field, Buxton's normal role as DH would be unavailable.
On the other hand, Baldelli said, if Buxton's knee and hamstring injuries have healed enough for him to play, perhaps he wouldn't be limited to DH. Perhaps, with no worries about keeping him healthy for six months, he could return to center field in a Twins uniform for the first time in more than a year.
"I would say, why not? Why would we not consider it?" Baldelli said. "I think Byron would say the same thing. … We have some time."