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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lewis forges friendships first

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Joy Absalon

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Maybe the best way to describe the role California infielder/outfielder Royce Lewis would like to assume at the 16th annual Perfect Game National Showcase which is rapidly racing to its conclusion, is that of social coordinator.

When Lewis gets into an environment like the one created at the PG National, he immediately gravitates towards the other prospects and they, in turn, gravitate towards him. Lewis arrived in Florida on Tuesday with his mom, Cindy Lewis, his sister and his grandparents and spent three days just seeing the sights, including a quick trip over to Miami for dinner one of those days. Late Saturday, he was finally at jetBlue Park and able to get down to business, which is the business of shoring up friendships.

“I’m really looking forward to going out and having fun, just playing my game and seeing all my buddies that I haven’t seen for a while from all the different states,” Lewis said Saturday. “It seems like I know about 70 or 80 of these guys, and they’re all really funny.”

Lewis made the connections with these other top players who arrived here from all over the place by performing at last year’s PG Underclass All-American Games in San Diego and mostly through his association with USA Baseball. He went through all the team trials a year ago and made the Team USA 15u roster, a squad that finished as runner-up in the 2015 15u World Cup.

He called the whole tryout process for Team USA “amazing”, one filled with eye-opening experiences every step of the way. But it seems like everything the sociable young Lewis becomes involved with circles back to making new friends. “You get to meet all these amazing players and they’re all really good guys,” Lewis said. “Just hanging out with the guys is the best part of it to me.”

The 6-foot-2, 188-pound right-handed hitting and throwing Lewis just celebrated his 17th birthday on June 5, and despite his relative youth in the class of 2017 he has climbed to No. 13 overall in PG’s national prospect rankings (No. 5 overall California). In one way, he finds the rankings intriguing; in another way, they are just so many numbers.

“The only thing I use to gauge my progress is looking at myself and playing with these guys and looking to see how good they all are,” he said. “I can definitely improve defensively – I’ve noticed that with my arm strength – and I need to work as hard as I can to get better with that. You can always get better at everything, so I just try to learn from these guys, see how they work and just take their mindset and see where we can go from there.”

With only one other PG event on his resume – the 2015 PG Underclass All-American Games where he earned inclusion on the Top Prospect List – it was Lewis’ standout performances with USA Baseball and with his high school team that caught the eye of Perfect Game’s talent evaluators.

Lewis, who calls Aliso Viejo, Calif., home, will be a senior in the fall at California and national power JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano where his game as blossomed under head coach Brett Kay and associate head coach Will “Rube” Rubaclava. The Lions finished 27-7 this season after a loss to Harvard Westlake in the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 state playoffs last month.

The relationship between Lewis and the JSerra program has been mutually beneficial. He was named the Trinity League Player of the Year both as a sophomore and a junior, and after hitting .429 with 42 hits – including nine doubles and four home runs – this season, he was named The Los Angeles Times Southern California High School Player of the Year.

“He just wants to win,” Kay told The Times after Lewis’ selection. “He wants to do everything for the team; he’s not about the numbers or statistics. … Royce is one of those players who comes around once in every blue moon. He’s a special talent. By the time he graduates, he’s going to be the best player who’s ever played in our program and will go down as one of the best players in Southern California.”

That is high praise, indeed, and the appreciation is mutual: “Being a part of the JSerra program really turned my life around; it was like a 360 (degrees),” Lewis told PG Saturday. “I was pretty much of a nobody going into school and then I started getting all of this attention because of all the things (Coach Kay) has taught me about how to be a better player; the whole experience has been awesome.”

William Lewis, Royce’s father, is a restaurant owner and sommelier (wine steward) in the Aliso Viejo area and was unable to join Royce here and enjoy Father’s Day at the ballpark with his son. William played both baseball and football at Cal State Fullerton and was certainly in his son’s thoughts.

“From day-one, he’s helped me as much as he possibly could,” Royce said. “He’s so busy at work I don’t get to see him as often as I’d like but when I do we take advantage of it. We go workout together, we relax together; we do everything together as much as we can.”

Cindy Lewis, Royce’s mom, is here and she has a prominent athletic background as well, having played softball at San Jose State University. “She was a beast. She always tells me she was the one that gave me all of my athleticism; that’s where I get it from,” Lewis said with a laugh.

Cindy also laughed when told of that comment but became more reflective when asked why she thought it was important for her son to be at the PG National: “Royce enjoys playing with the best players and all the best players are out here,” she said. “It’s a good week for him to be out here and hopefully he does well. I feel like all of the tournaments and everything that he performs in is bettering his skills with the best players, for whatever it may be.”

Lewis performed well during Saturday night’s workout session, throwing 91 mph from the outfield and 87 mph across the infield while running a 6.64-second 60-yard dash. He also took a noteworthy BP, which was commented on by a PG blogger: Royce Lewis looks the part physically at 6-foot-2, 188-pounds and his swing is one that projects very well. His overall path is short and quick to the ball while generating leverage out front, helping to create big carry to the opposite field.

It's worth mentioning that this year’s PG National Showcase produced three of the fastest times in the 60-yard dash in event history: Quentin Holmes (East Elmhurst, N.Y.), ran it in 6.15-seconds; Cole Brannen (Elko, Ga.) in 6.18; and Jordan Adell (Louisville, Ky.) in 6.19.

He has decided to continue both his baseball and academic careers at UC Irvine depending, of course, on what transpires in the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft. He fell in love with the Anteaters’ head coach Mike Gillespie and his staff and he was off to the races.

“Me and my family visited a bunch of colleges, and when we met this coaching staff they were right at the top as far as being the nicest, the best,” Lewis said. “Their loyalty, their passion – they’re all alumni of that school – and the school itself was just awesome.”

Lewis does not plan on hooking up with any travel ball team on a fulltime basis this summer but he’ll stay busy. He leaves for Cary, N.C., and the USA Baseball Tournament of Stars as soon as the PG National concludes Monday afternoon – his dad William will meet the family there – spend the rest of June and July doing USA Baseball-related events and then gladly accept an invitation to the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., in early August if one comes his way.

He will also gladly accept an invitation to the Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego in mid-August if one is extended to him; he should know more about that by the time he leaves Southwest Florida on Monday. JSerra’s Kay was the head coach of the West Team at the 2014 PG All-American Classic and an assistant coach last year.

“I would love to be a part of that,” Lewis said. “It’s right down from my house, pretty much, in San Diego, right in my backyard. It’s only an hour away and I’d bring my whole family with me to watch me play.”

Most of the family was on hand to watch Lewis perform during his three-day stay at the PG National Showcase, and he’ll be able to celebrate Father’s Day on Monday when William meets the group in Cary. When Cindy was asked what she hopes Royce takes away from this experience by the time they board the plane for Cary, she talked first about baseball and then about friendships. She knows what’s most important to her 17-year-old son.

“The number-one thing is to just always work hard and do your best, and be a good teammate,” Cindy Lewis said. “You need to work hard, have respect for the game, have respect for everyone involved and just always do your best.

“I hope he enjoys himself, I hope he does his best out on the field and meets some more kids. That’s his number-one thing. He enjoys meeting all these players and it’s really fun for him.”

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