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As a recruit, Kyle Lewis didn’t exactly fit Mercer’s mold.
The Bears look for players ready to contribute quickly. Lewis wasn’t going to be that guy, his attention always having been divided between baseball and basketball. Still, between his athleticism, his intelligence and his tools—even if he only showed them in flashes—Mercer coaches decided he was worth bringing in.
“He was just an athletic piece and his skill level wasn’t there (as a high schooler),” Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. “So he’s generally not what we sign. We like more guys that are a little more skilled, that can come in and play immediately. But he was a guy we took a chance on—that we thought if his skill level ever caught up with his athleticism, he’s going to be a good player.”
The skill level did catch up. Three years later, Lewis will leave as the program’s new gold standard. “He’s the best player in school history,” Gibson said.
Lewis’ statistics read like something out of another era—a .395/.535/.731 slash line in 61 games. Although Mercer’s season ended in the finals of the Southern Conference tournament, at the time, Lewis ranked among the top five nationally in total bases, slugging and on-base percentage. Mercer’s coaches are quick to point out his nation-leading 66 walks cost him roughly 15 games of at-bats too, meaning he did did his greatest damage—his 20 homers and 72 RBIs—as if he played in 45 games.
With that level of domination, on top of being one of college baseball’s premier talents, Lewis is Baseball America’s 2016 College Player of the Year.
Even though the thunderous power in his bat is usually the first thing mentioned in any Lewis scouting report, he doesn’t think of himself as a home run hitter. For Lewis, home runs are just a by-product of trying to hit balls on a line, a mentality that would make any hitting coach proud.
“I’m not trying to go up there and just slug home runs and swing for the fences. I’m trying to put hard line drives in play consistently,” Lewis said. “I think that if you try to hit low line drives consistently that you’ll get the elevation and you’ll get some balls out of the park, and I’ve been able to do that. But I think that as an overall hitter, I try to just be a hitter for average.”
Lewis hit a 461-foot moon shot over the batter’s eye at Fluor Field in the SoCon tournament that was as majestic as a home run can be—a ball down the middle, his front foot down, full extension on his arms. The blast elicited oohs and ahs from the crowd and the video of it spread quickly on Twitter. In the Bears’ dugout though, it wasn’t anything they hadn’t seen before. Just Kyle doing his thing.
“That’s nothing abnormal for Kyle,” teammate Trey Truitt said afterward. “Kyle does that all the time.”
After not playing every day as a freshman, Lewis took off as a sophomore last year. He hit .367/.423/.677 with 17 homers in the spring for Mercer, then tore up the prestigious Cape Cod League over the summer, hitting .300/.344/.500 and ranking as the Cape’s No. 3 prospect.
Packs of scouts have followed Lewis ever since. But even with his hometown team, the Braves, owning the third overall pick, Lewis doesn’t let his mind wander. Sure, he’s thought about the draft, but so long as he was wearing a Mercer uniform, the Bears were his priority.
“We’ll have 15-30 or more scouts at each game,” Mercer assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Brent Shade said. “He knows that they’re there, but he puts it out of his mind and just goes about his business and lets his play do the talking for him. He’s a team guy, I will tell you that. He’s all about Mercer first and Kyle second. That’s hard to find guys like that.”
Lewis led the Bears to back-to-back SoCon regular-season titles in 2015 and 2016, winning conference player of the year honors in both. Suffice to say that chance the Bears took paid off. “I don’t know what’s to come,” Lewis said, “but it’s going to be fun.”