Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' Souza pursues elusive eliteness

NEW YORK— Steven Souza Jr. can do a lot of things that leave his Rays mates and bosses wondering how.

Sometimes they are marveling at the good, such as the monstrous 461-foot blast for his second home run Thursday at Yankee Stadium. Other times they are shaking their heads at the bad, a play or a decision.

Getting a better read on what Souza can be counted on to do consistently is one of the Rays' clear priorities through September. They have to decide whether they can bank on him to be the impact player they projected — a middle-of-the-order bat and above-average outfielder — when acquiring him in December 2014 at a high cost, or if they need to gulp, accept their mistake and look for someone else.

"He can be a very special player," manager Kevin Cash said. "Physically … I don't know if you can count five players in baseball that can hit a ball as far as he did (Thursday) night. As far as the speed, the power, the arm strength, those are talents that a lot of people wish they had.

"Now it does come to a point where you've got to put it together and watch it play out over a consistent period of time. And this is a big month. We're all pulling for 'Souz.' We want him to go into the offseason feeling good about himself. And if (Thursday) night is any indication of things turning his way, we're all on board with that."

There was another positive sign Friday, when Souza homered again in a 7-5 thrice rain-delayed loss to the Yankees, finishing the night hitting .241 with 16 homers, 47 RBIs, 153 strikeouts in 431 plate appearances (with only 26 walks) and a .698 OPS.

His physical ability has been obvious and mostly unquestioned, though his proclivity to strike out at a majors-most rate is somewhat concerning.

But baseball is a mental game, too, wrought with failure, and that is where Souza candidly admits he has to improve.

"I think I have to mature as a player," Souza, 27, said. "I think I've got a little bit to go as far as not trying to overthink things, not trying to break things down too much, and come to the ballpark with a mature game plan and stick to it.

"And I think I've done a really poor job of sticking to my game plan and trusting my abilities. And I think the more I can trust those abilities I've been born with, I think (I'm) going to be more consistent."

Souza, who overcame personal battles early in his career, needs help in evolving.

And the Rays might be best served by making the help a team effort.

On Wednesday, for example, after watching Souza flail and strike out in his final at-bat, looking "like he was playing against the guy on the mound and in the box," pitcher Alex Cobb offered his buddy a few words of advice about taking a much simpler, "see ball, hit ball" approach.

Chase Whitley, another pitcher and friend, offered a similar message Thursday, telling Souza to relax, not to try so hard, to have confidence that his ample talents are enough.

"Steve has probably as much talent as anybody else that puts on a uniform throughout the big leagues," Cobb said. "He can do everything.

"The one thing he does is he tries too hard, and that can be a character flaw. He wants it so bad. He wants to outwork everybody. And sometimes when you go down that path, you can be your own worst enemy. I think just relaxing a bit — this game is pretty stressful — will do wonders for him."

There were more kind words later Thursday afternoon when Souza met with new hitting coach Chad Mottola, who reminded him of their first session together. It was early in spring training 2015, and Mottola, then a minor-league coordinator, marveled at the skills Souza showed during a drill — a unique drill and his favorite one, hitting golf ball-sized foam balls while wearing goggles that intermittently block his vision.

"He needs to realize how talented he is," Mottola said. "And every once in a while you need to be reminded of that when this game is so evil."

All that praise got Souza to thinking — which, he admits, can sometimes be dangerous — about making the game as simple as possible, like playing wiffle ball as a kid.

"I kind of connected the two and said why don't I just go up there and just try and see the ball like I do when I do those (drills), because that's what I did for the longest time," Souza said. "The problem with that is that it takes a lot of faith and it takes a lot of trust in what you're doing and what your ability is to just go up there day after day knowing no matter who is on the mound, I'm going to trust my ability and not try and overthink or do too much or waver based on the fact if I get a hit or not."

At this point, faith seems to be the key word for Souza, and for the Rays.

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