On June 9, 2016, Kyle Lewis’ dreams of becoming a professional baseball player became a reality.
Lewis, a Shiloh graduate, was selected by the Seattle Mariners with the 11th pick of the 2016 MLB Draft after as decorated a season as one could have as a collegiate player.
The 6-foot-4 outfielder was fresh off of a junior season at Mercer that included him hitting .395 with 20 home runs and 72 RBIs, en route to being named the Baseball America College Player of the Year and recipient of the Golden Spikes Award as collegiate baseball’s most outstanding player.
But less than two months after being drafted, Lewis’ trajectory hit a snag.
In July, Lewis suffered a torn ACL in his right knee while playing for the Everett Aquasox, a minor league affiliate of the Mariners, and was set to undergo surgery for the first time in his career.
“I was trying to score,” Lewis said. “We had a base hit to right field and I was getting sent home. The catcher was coming up the line and I was trying to avoid the catcher. My foot got caught in the ground and my knee buckled. I felt a few pops and I had a pretty decent idea that it was going to be something major.”
The injury sidelined Lewis for about 11 months until he made his return for the Class-A Advanced Modesto Nuts last Sunday. He started in center field and walked in his only at-bat.
“I try to stay pretty even-keeled so I didn’t really get too high or too low,” Lewis said. “I was of the mindset that it was what I expected to do. I expected to be back and at the level that I expect to be at. Going back out there was definitely exciting, (there were) a little butterflies. I was just proud of myself for being able to get through that process.”
The process included nearly a year of being on the shelf for the man who is the No. 1 rated prospect in the Mariners organization, according to MLB Pipeline. But Lewis took the time off as a learning experience that could allow him to grow and mature as a player and person.
“The biggest thing that I learned about myself was that I shouldn’t try to control everything,” Lewis said. “I feel as though, a lot of times, you try to control every situation and have your hands on every situation. I’ve tried to take my hands away and let it be what it is going to be and let God be in control of my life.”
One of the greatest aspects of returning from injury for Lewis is the ability to reward the organization that made him a first-round draft pick. He also feels honored by the support that he has received from the Mariners organization throughout his recovery.
“It’s validating for me that (the organization) recognizes (what it takes to return),” Lewis said. “A lot of guys don’t get the opportunity to be challenged like that. A lot of guys could handle that situation but a lot of people aren’t forced to. When you are forced to, the situation will pull things out of you that you didn’t know that you had.”
Even though he has been sidelined from live game action, Lewis has still been working on his game.
He has transitioned to the lifestyle of a professional baseball player and endured nearly a year of the conditioning and training demands that come with it.
That new style of training has allowed Lewis to tweak his game, even while not being at 100 percent, making him even more optimistic about how he can grow once he is back to feeling normal.
“First and foremost, I’ve gotten a lot stronger and a lot bigger. “Lewis said. “I feel like we train a lot differently than I had in the past. And I am a lot more functional with my movements, just trying to be more efficient. In an overall sense, I’ve been getting a lot better even without being able to fully train for a while.”
And Lewis made a statement in his return that he just might be on his way to being back to his old self.
The former Mercer Bear made a running catch at the wall in center field and showed off the physical gifts that helped make him such a highly-touted prospect.
“(The knee) is holding up pretty well,” Lewis said. “It is a little sore but that is normal and to be expected. I played in center field my first game back and felt good and comfortable out there. I made a nice catch at the wall and I felt right at home. I felt like I was right back to doing what I know how to do.”
However, the catch did have some worried about Lewis’ health.
Lewis was initially scheduled to play five innings in his debut game but was pulled after making the running catch in the fourth inning. But Lewis says that there is no reason for concern regarding the move.
“I was scheduled to play five innings but just soreness came on and it was a tough catch,” Lewis said. “It required a lot of me and for precautionary reasons, they pulled me after the fourth. But it was fine. It wasn’t anything of the injury sort.”
Looking ahead, Lewis now has a lot of expectations to live up to.
Being a superstar in college and a top prospect in the pros, many expect Lewis to become a slugger at the major league level one day. He will now set off to work his way through the minor league system in order to justify his first-round status and even exceed the hype surrounding his talents on the field.
And after the year he has had, there might be no expectation higher than the ones that Lewis sets for himself.
“For me, I feel like I always have that expectation of myself, just being that elite-level player that I feel like I can be,” Lewis said. “That expectation is already on me as a person, so I don’t think that outside influences can add any more of that. I hold myself to the highest of standards as a person first, and as a teammate as well.”