Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

The Steven Souza Jr. Adventure takes another wild turn

ST. PETERSBURG — Steven Souza Jr. will dive for balls he can catch. He sometimes dives for balls he cannot catch. He once, infamously, dove for a ball that was not in the same area code.

"He plays hard. He wants to win," Kevin Kiermaier said. "But sometimes he makes you scratch your head."

Hit a home run? Souza will be waiting for you at the end of the dugout with a bear hug that will lift you off your feet.

"The man loves to hug," Evan Longoria said.

Has he ever agreed with a called third strike?

"Once," Souza said.

Souza is a man of many faces, and most are on display when he is called out on strikes. There is anger, despair, bewilderment, shock, utter disbelief.

"It's not just the Souza face, it's the Souza actions," Mallex Smith said. "It's not something that can be planned or imitated. You just know it's going to happen, you just don't know exactly when, but Souza is going to happen."

• • •

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

The hustle of Steven Souza Jr. inspires the admiration of teammates, spectacular diving catches like this one against Boston on July 9 at Tropicana Field, and a fair number of head-scratching moments.

Souza has been happening a lot this season.

He has 17 home runs and 46 walks at the All-Star Break, both matching career highs. He has 56 RBI, the most in his four big-league seasons.

First base coach Rocco Baldelli: "When guys have the ability like he has you give them every opportunity to figure out the game, and it looks like Souza is doing that now."

Manager Kevin Cash: "We've been talking about All-Stars a lot lately, and he was probably right on the borderline of putting together an All-Star first half. What he's done offensively, defensively, I don't know where we'd be without him."

Souza, 28, is the type of hitter who can carry a team for a week. But he is streaky and can vanish for a stretch.

"When I can just relax and have fun and not overanalyze what's going on I can have a lot of fun and do some great things," he said. "But when I get in my own head and get in my own way I can disappear a little bit."

He overthinks. Every ballplayer does.

He struggles. Every ballplayer does.

He has fun. Every ballplayer tries. Few succeed like the Rays rightfielder, the king the highlight-reel producing, jaw-dropping, sometimes head scratching, occasionally belly busting moments.

Kiermaier: "There's definitely one Steven Souza Jr. out there."

• • •

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

The ability and hustle of Steven Souza Jr. earned him a unique view of this home run by Boston's Dustin Pedroia on July 9 at Tropicana Field, on Sunday, July 9, 2017.

Souza'd

/SOO-za'd/

Verb

To take an otherwise simple task and turn it into an adventure. As in, 'He Souza'd it."

Souza'd … Rays' Fox Sports Sun analyst Brian Anderson coined that phrase and definition and uses it occasionally on TV. It is a term of endearment.

Anderson: "I love the guy. Absolutely love the guy."

Logan Morrison: "He's a really good player. His defense is really good. No matter if he's hitting or not, he's making us better as a team."

Alex Cobb: "He's a gamer, no doubt, and it's really fun to see him have the success he's having this year. He deserves it. He's one of the hardest workers in preparing for the game."

Longoria: "With Souza you get what you see. It's not an act. He goes out. He plays the game hard. He's a little quirky at times. Some of the things that he does are just a little different, and they work for him."

Souza's teammates appreciate his hustle, especially in the outfield. He seldom encounters a line drive he does not think he can catch.

Cobb: "I think he's run into more walls and jumped into more stands than just about anybody."

• • •

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

What's a Rays dugout celebration without a Steven Souza Jr. hug to end it, as he does here in this embrace of Tim Beckham following Beckham's home run June 7 against Oakland at Tropicana Field.

So who is this guy?

Steven Souza Jr., is a man of deep faith, who hangs out with high school buddies in the offseason, plays fantasy football, loves to sing to his 7-month son, Micah, prays nightly, turned his run-oriented high-school football team into one that passed — mostly to him — out of the wing-T, drew his first intentional walk when he was 9 and counts on his wife, Mikaela, to keep him grounded.

He loves to laugh and hug his teammates.

And he is not afraid to occasionally embarrass himself on the field.

Cobb: "That's obvious."

Cash: "I think Souza's pretty comfortable in his own skin."

Morrison: "He can laugh at himself, which is good. If you can't laugh at yourself, especially in this game, it will eat you alive."

Souza: "My parents taught me at a very young age if you can't laugh at yourself who can you laugh at?"

• • •

The Laugh came after The Dive.

It happened May 26 at Minnesota when Kennys Vargas of the Twins sent a sinking line drive to no-man's land in shallow right-centerfield. Kiermaier and Souza gave chase when Souza, still some 30 feet away from where the ball would land, dove.

His reasoning: He lost the ball in the Target Field lights and wanted to take himself out of the play.

A run scored on the hit. Seconds later, Kiermaier and Souza watched the replay in the giant video screen.

They laughed.

Kiermaier: "I could not not laugh right there, along with everyone in the ballpark and everyone who saw the highlight after the game. It was hard not to laugh at that because of how ridiculous it was. But if one person on our team was going to do that, Souza. Somebody else does that, it's like 'what happened?' But Souza, he doesn't really surprise us."

Souza: "I don't really care how I look. I'm not going to live my life the way other people want me to be or the way I should look on the field as a smooth baseball player who does everything perfect. That's not me."

• • •

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

A Steven Souza Jr. strikeout tends to produce some colorful reactions. Here Souza stands in the batter's box seconds after an inning-ending strike out against the Chicago White Sox on June 7, 2017 at Tropicana Field.

Yankees hard-throwing right-hander Dellin Betances blew a high-90s fastball across the outer-third of the plate and past Souza during a late-May game at Tropicana Field. Home plate umpire Brian O'Nora called strike three and the game was over.

Souza lowered his head and walked off the field.

It was the kind of pitch no one could hit. No argument from Souza.

That was rare, though he reluctantly admitted to agreeing with a few called third strikes.

"A lot of times I go back and look (at the video) and it's one of those pitches that could go either way," Souza said. "I pride myself on having a great eye. It's something that I'm working on, but, yeah, I have agreed with some called third strikes."

Just not at the moment.

• • •

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Leading game-ending celebrations like this one with Corey Dickerson (10) and and Mallex Smith (0) after a 5-3 win over Boston on July 9 is an example of "Souza being Souza."

"Did he tell you he can dance?" Jordan Sieh asked.

Sieh and Souza go way back to their days at Cascade High.

Sieh said Souza is the kind of friend who invites everyone over on Sundays to watch football and grill steaks. He said Souza is the same guy now as he was back then, although he has a much stronger faith. A man of deep faith himself, Sieh loves that about his friend.

Sieh: "He works extremely hard in baseball. I see him in the offseason, and he's working his tail off. But he knows what's important and at the end of the day I think it's put baseball at ease. He knows that God has allowed him to succeed. He knows what's important and it's taken a lot of pressure off and he plays a little more freely on the baseball diamond."

Sieh was an Airborne Ranger, who did three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. To Souza, Sieh is the hero. How do you complain about a Dellin Betances fastball or a four-strikeout night against Chris Sale when your buddy was jumping out of planes into combat zones?

"That puts what we do in perspective," Souza said.

Sieh was watching from his Seattle-area home the night Souza made the The Dive against the Twins. Like everyone else who watched, Sieh laughed.

It was Souza being Souza.

Sieh: "I wasn't that surprised something like that happened to him."

• • •

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Steven Souza Jr. (20) plays with his child following a 6-1 win over Torontoon Saturday, May 6, 2017.

This is a big year for Souza. He's making $547,000 this season, at the end of which he'll be eligible for arbitration. While he'll likely be due a big bump in pay, it's also time for him to pay dividends on the mega trade that brought him to Tampa Bay in December 2014.

After two injury-filled seasons, Souza is producing up to his potential. He is doing it in part because of new hitting coach Chad Mottola and because he is sticking to his preseason goal of not over-thinking things, not getting in his own way. That allows him to play with less stress.

At night, Souza sits on his beds or sometimes outside under the stars and thanks God for his blessings, for his family, for his health, for the ability to play baseball at the highest level of the game.

On those occasions when he does let his play eat at him, he has Mikaela.

"She knows I'm an over-analyzer and she's try and help me and says things like, 'You're doing it again. You're getting in your own head. Just go out there and have fun.' Or, 'I thought we were going to play this season with joy? Just go out there and play with joy,'" Souza said. "She prays for me all the time. I can't thank her enough."

• • •

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Steven Souza tries to cheer up Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (39) in the dugout before the first Rays game after the announcement that Kiermaier would miss about two months with a fractured hip.

The result has been a career year for Souza in only 84 games.

There have been lots of dugout hugs and more than a few laughs.

Take the night in Pittsburgh when he was drilled in the ribs by an Ivan Nova fastball. As he made his way to first base, Souza looked at Nova, rubbed where the ball hit him and said, "Ouch."

That was Souza's way of making light of what could have been a tense situation. Nova had indicated that he did not hit Souza on purpose.

"I just tried to bring some humor to the situation," Souza said. "It didn't feel very funny at the time."

Cobb: "He definitely does some weird things out there. We give him a lot of crap for it."

Kiermaier: "He's a character. You can't put it any other way."

He is Steven Souza Jr., and he is happening.

Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50.

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