For a second, Royce Lewis lost himself in the moment.
The Twins' top prospect was finally taking live at-bats again in two of the last instructional league games in Fort Myers, Fla., this fall. He hit a ground ball and instinctively took off running.
"I've never seen this in my life, and I probably won't again, and I hope I don't," Lewis said, "but the first base coach gave me the double-hands stop sign. 'No. Stop. Do not go.'
"… I even went back into the dugout and joked, I'm like, 'How many of you guys have ever seen a first base coach give the stop sign?' They started laughing."
He only managed about four steps out of the box before he remembered he's still in recovery from a torn ACL in his right knee that required reconstructive surgery in February and a nine- to 12-month rehabilitation. But those full-out strides felt good, just as hitting a homer off Jhoan Duran felt good. Even striking out against Duran felt good, mostly because that's about the most baseball the shortstop has played in what feels like eons.
With the pandemic canceling the 2020 minor league season and his injury taking him out for 2021 early in spring training, Lewis will have spent basically two years away from the sport. The 22-year-old — picked No. 1 overall in the 2017 draft — seemed primed to make his major league debut last season if not for the injury. But he's hoping 2022 will be his next chance.
"My first hurdle is to just get on the field and play every day without a leash," Lewis said, speaking from his Dallas-area home Tuesday. "Unhook the leash. Let me off the leash. Let's get going. I'm ready."
The Twins staff will likely ease Lewis in a bit slower than that, but Lewis has felt he's been ahead of schedule throughout his rehab process. He lost the crutches five weeks after surgery, when doctors had estimated it would take more like six to eight weeks. He started lifting weights about 10 days after the surgery, continuing that six days a week ever since. When the swelling calmed down around early May, he started kneeling drills, fielding about 50 ground balls every morning. In another two months, he was taking grounders outside, albeit from a stationary position at first.
That activity slowly increased, plus those 20 or so live at-bats, before Lewis left Florida to embark on what he considers a pretty normal offseason at home in Texas, where he plans to focus on his knee's ability to run and jump without restraint. As long as CBA negotiations don't set back the start of spring training, he plans to return to the Fort Myers facility in mid-January.
"If I could do this now at eight months, then I'm definitely going to be feeling good at 12, which is another four months until spring," Lewis said. "So that's all kind of in my head, a good thing and a good telltale sign."
The bouncy, optimistic Lewis seen on the video call was a contrast from the "misery" he felt in the first months of his recovery, when the only way to quench his thirst for competition was playing putt-putt golf three times a week. But those trials also afforded him his current sunny outlook.
"You've just got to go out there thinking. 'Man, I'm having fun. I'm facing Gerrit Cole. This is awesome. Or I'm facing Lucas Giolito, in Minnesota, at home, let's go,' " Lewis said. "Me in my head, that's what I'm picturing. One year, two years down the road, whenever that opportunity comes for me. I just want to take it and run with it. I'm not going to let it go ever again."