Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' Steven Souza reaches productive comfort zone

Acquired as the centerpiece in the stunning unloading of Wil Myers, Steven Souza Jr. came to the Rays last season trying to do too much.

He was battling to prove he was ready for the long-awaited chance to be in the big leagues. He was working feverishly to ingratiate himself with his new teammates. He was adjusting to being married and making sure he and Mikaela were comfortable living in the Tampa Bay area. And he was focusing — way too much, he would realize later — on living up to the hype that preceded him.

So this year, Souza is planning on doing less.

And from the (very) early returns, it might be the key to doing more.

In the four-game opening series with Toronto, Souza was 6-for-15 (.400) with three homers, combining the aggressive philosophy the Rays want with a more disciplined overall approach of hitting the ball hard and mostly up the middle. He talks of being similarly more mature in decision-making on the bases and in rightfield.

In other words, just being concerned with being one of the guys in the Rays lineup rather than the guy.

"I definitely don't disbelieve that I can be that guy," Souza, 26, said, "but I think I focused on it a lot last year and tried to be that guy.

"Whereas I know that I've been blessed with some skill and some ability. So (I'm) just going out and playing the game day in and day out, trying to focus on the day-to-day grind. And at the end of the year, look up and hopefully be where I want to be."

Manager Kevin Cash said he noticed a different attitude as soon as Souza showed up in Port Charlotte.

"This second year there's going to be more comfort," Cash said. "I know there was during spring training. He was a little bit of a different person this spring. More familiar with his teammates, with the coaching staff, with everybody around. Hopefully that helps."

Baseball operations president Matt Silverman seems to think it will.

"Comfort is a key factor in performance, especially for young players," Silverman said. "Last year was a year of adjustment for him. He was in a new organization trying to establish himself as a major-league player. That's a steep challenge. This year he seems more at ease, more relaxed. He's finally on stable ground and can focus all his energies on just playing the game."

It wasn't like Souza's 2015 season was a waste.

He did show flashes of that enticing five-tool talent, swatting 16 homers, stealing 12 bases and throwing out eight baserunners, despite missing 45 games with injuries.

But he also hit only .225, struck out 144 times in 496 plate appearances (the highest ratio of any regular player in the majors) and made a number of rookie mistakes in the field and on the bases.

"We all picked apart his first season," Cash said. "But it was still a pretty solid season for a first-year major-league player."

Souza considered his eighth-inning at-bat in Wednesday's 5-3 win over the Jays an illustration of his improved approach. Down 3-2, the Rays had Evan Longoria on first with one out. Desmond Jennings did a good job executing a hit-and-run on a bad pitch, sending Longoria to third.

At that point, Souza said he was focused on only one thing: making enough contact to get Longoria home — somehow, anyhow — as the tying run, sac fly, ground ball, whatever.

"Just got to get him to the dish, bottom line," he said.

Unburdened of grander expectations, Souza launched a 438-foot three-run homer that gave the Rays the win.

There are still going to be moments when Souza might look out of control at the plate or lost in the field or on the bases. But the Rays have good reason to believe a more comfortable Souza will be a better Souza.

"I think taking a step back," Souza said, "even with the injuries last year, taking a step back and just really realizing how blessed we really were to be here, and what my real game plan was, and what we're meant to do here, was huge for us."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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