Kyle Lewis, the Mariners' top pick in the 2016 draft, is working diligently in his recovery from season-ending knee surgery. The young outfielder is embracing the challenge and using doubters as his motivation.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Kyle Lewis strides into the hallway of the Mariners’ spring training complex, moving with purpose. There is no grimace of pain on his face or sign of a limp in his gait.
The Mariners’ first-round pick — No. 11 overall — of the 2016 draft out of Mercer University looks, well, healthy and ready to step onto one of the back fields to chase down fly balls or lash line drives into the outfield.
But he isn’t.
Beneath the sweat pants he’s wearing are the lasting remnants of a healed incision on his right knee — the product of massive surgical reconstruction of his anterior cruciate ligament and medial and lateral meniscus. The scar that remains will serve as a daily reminder of the unpredictability of being a professional athlete and the finite amount of time to play the game he loves.
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“I’ve never had a serious injury before,” he said. “The only games I ever missed were due to illness.”
On July 19, Lewis suffered a ghastly knee injury sliding into home in a game for short-season Everett. He suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, torn medial and lateral meniscus in his right knee when it bent awkwardly while colliding with the catcher.
“You can feel the pop and the not normal feeling you would get from a tweak or sprain,” he said. “It was a definitely a different kind of feeling, a different kind of pain.”
At the time, he was playing outstanding baseball with a slash line of .299/.385/.538 with eight doubles, five triples, three homers and 26 RBI in 30 games. After a slow start, he was hitting .364 with a 1.114 OPS over his final 20 games.
“I started to really to turn it on and get back to feeling how I am supposed to play,” he said.
But his season was done. Lewis underwent surgery on Aug. 11 and is now mired in the lengthy, mentally grueling recovery process that traditionally takes a year to return to full strength.
He’s refused to pout or complain or search for sympathy.
“I try not to think in any sort of negative light about stuff,” he said. “I was like, ‘ok, let’s figure out what it is so we can get to work on fixing it.'”
It’s a mindset that he got from his parents, Chuck and Ruth.
“I have to give credit to my parents for grooming my personality to handle something like this,” he said. “When I called my mom, she wasn’t crying. She was just like, ‘Get the MRI and get to work and get going.'”
He has no time for others’ laments.
“Life is going to be life,” he said. “Stuff is going to happen and you just have to roll with it. I always tell anyone that tries to get down for me: ‘If I’m not upset, then you shouldn’t be upset either.’ There are things you can learn from this experience. Maybe I can work on my mobility and get even more flexible so when I come back I feel even better than I did before — I just try to have that mindset.”
The adjustment to the grind of a professional baseball season has been replaced by the day-to-day monotony of injury rehab.
“That’s the tough part,” he said. “There’s a lot of pain every day. You go into it knowing that you’ll have pain. But once you get through each day it’s really satisfying.”
He’s learned to understand the concept of incremental successes that don’t involve a bat or a ball.
“It’s a trying time,” he said. “A lot of it is mental, trusting the process and being able to take things as slow as you can because you kind of want to hurry up and get to the next phase. You have to embrace the small victories, minimal goals. Ten degrees range of motion every day.”
The small victories have kept Lewis progressing in what will be possibly a year-long recovery. He’s able to do light lifting in his lower half, while still working diligently on his core and upper body.
“I’m right on track of where I was expected to be at this point — full range of motion, no pain, starting to do split squats and lunges and things like that,” he said.
Lewis made the decision to do all of his rehab and recovery in Peoria under the direction of the Mariners’ medical staff.
“I’m staying here,” he said. “I’m going to do the work here until it’s done.”
While some young players would opt for the dependency of family and all that is comfortable at home, Lewis was adamant in attacking the recovery in his own way. It’s what a professional would do.
“I like being on my own,” he said. “I like to challenge myself. I think that’s the only way you grow is through challenges. So for me, I didn’t want to go home and crutch myself through it with my parents doing everything. I wanted to stay out where I need to be, challenge myself and go through this.”
He isn’t afraid of challenges. It’s all he’s known.
“For me, I just always think back on where I’ve come from,” he said. “Fighting though the adversity of coming from a small school and being overlooked and how I had to fight through that, I just relate it to this. Now I’m going to be overlooked in the sense — ‘oh, he won’t be the same player when he comes back.’ That just lights my fire to show people that I will be even more explosive when I come back.”