PEORIA, Ariz. — It always comes back to the knee.
It’s not as if Kyle Lewis needs a reminder of what has happened to him and what he’s trying to overcome. If he were ever to somehow momentarily forget, he need only to look down at his right knee where the scars from two surgeries — one major and one minor — remain.
Unfortunately, so much of his brief professional baseball career has been defined by injury and the interruptions that followed. And while he’s always focused forward on his future, anything he’s done always comes with a recollection of the injuries that cost him time and development.
“I wouldn’t say I’m tired of it,” he said. “But until that narrative changes, that will be something that is dictated by time. The longer you stay healthy, the more those questions start to fade away.”
It’s something he realized in the grind of rehab.
“It’s about the process,” he said “In the process of rehab, you have to find yourself and you begin to understand more about yourself. You are going day by day. If you get too big-picture, you start to get too stressed out.”
And yet, the knee issues that have plagued Lewis, dating back to a gruesome injury July 19, 2015, when his knee exploded on a slide/collision at home plate in Everett, shouldn’t be permanently forgotten. They provide context to the situation.
Monday, when Lewis jogged to right field of Peoria Stadium before the top of the first inning, it marked the first spring training game he’d ever played for the Mariners.
How is that possible for a guy drafted in the first round of the 2016 draft?
Well, he’s been never been healthy enough to participate fully in spring training. In 2017, he was recovering from the devastating initial injury, which required complete reconstruction of a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial and lateral meniscus. After an abbreviated season in which he dealt with tendinitis and other issues, Lewis underwent another surgery to clean up scar tissue in the knee and remove a bone spur. It left him rehabbing and recovering during spring training 2018.
“He’s never played in a spring training game,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “All the minor-league games that happen down there that we never see, he’s never even been in one of those.”
Lewis didn’t have time to be nervous or dwell on being out on the field for his spring debut. The first batter of the game, Nick Senzel, hit a line drive to Lewis that he fielded with relative ease.
“I got that pretty hard hit ball at me to get my feet wet,” he said.
In his first at-bat, Lewis got jammed on a fastball that ran up and in on his hands, but he was able to fight it off to bloop a single into right field.
The second at-bat provided a feel-good moment for the Mariners and the fans who have followed Lewis’ speed-bump filled path.
Facing Reds reliever Michael Lorenzen, Lewis smashed a 2-2 fastball over the fence in left-center. Spring training stats and results might be meaningless, but Lewis’ homer felt different.
“The fact he’s never, ever played a spring training game in the minor leagues or the big leagues, I’d say it was a pretty big day,” Servais said. “Really happy for Kyle. When you’re injured, it’s hard. Not just physically, but what it does to you mentally. You don’t feel like you’re part of the team, you’re letting people down, you’re letting the organization down, and he has really matured. Just makeup-wise, maturity-wise. It’s the entire package. Now you get to see it play out on the field, it’s even more exciting. Really happy for him.”
And then the baseball side came out of Servais.
“I thought his swings (Monday) were really good,” he said. “He was aggressive, he was on the right pitches, and he got good results.”
Once considered the top prospect in the Mariners organization, Lewis now is ranked seventh by Baseball America. The combination of injuries and other prospects acquired were responsible for his slide from the top. But the Mariners believe he’s a major part of their “step back” plan and a possible starting corner outfielder by 2021.
“You don’t know what that picture is going to look like, so I try not to get ahead of myself,” Lewis said. “I just try to keep my head down and stay focused.”
Although Lewis hasn’t been on the field as much as he’d hoped, that hasn’t stopped him from growing as a player. He’s trying to embrace the Mariners’ philosophy of taking “control of the zone” while also taking advantage of the new technology and improvements added to the player-development system.
“I think it’s just trying to understand and trying to learn,” he said. “These coaches have helped me a lot. Making sure that when I’m taking pitches, I’m taking the right way. And when I’m swinging, I’m swinging at the right pitches. When I went to Double A last year, they really worked me on this.”
Lewis will return to Class AA Arkansas for the start of the 2019 season. But the circumstances are different. For the first time since being drafted, he should enter a season on time and healthy. There have been no complications with the right knee.
“Fully normal,” he said. “I don’t feel it. I’m treating it like normal. Toward the end of last year, it felt really good. I went into the offseason and into high-performance camp and worked hard with these guys and I’ve been feeling good. There wasn’t a day where like a switch was turned. It was over time where it began to feel normal.”
Lewis split the season between High-A Modesto and Arkansas. He didn’t start his season until May 12, playing in 49 games for the Nuts. He posted a .260/.303/.429 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) with 18 doubles, five homers and 32 RBI. He was promoted to Arkansas on July 21 and played in 37 games, slashing .220/.309/.371 with eight doubles, four homers and 20 RBI.
The knee is no longer an issue or an excuse.
“When I play, I’m expecting to do well,” he said. “I’m not going to use anything as a crutch for my performance. But it’s part of it. It’s part of the narrative and I think everybody has a narrative and you have live to with it.”