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Fennelly: Steven Souza Jr. continues sizzling start for Rays

 
Steven Souza Jr., facing camera, gets a hug from catcher Wilson Ramos after his three-run home run in the third inning of the Rays’ victory over the Blue Jays to close out a 5-2 homestand. Up next: the Yankees. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]
Steven Souza Jr., facing camera, gets a hug from catcher Wilson Ramos after his three-run home run in the third inning of the Rays’ victory over the Blue Jays to close out a 5-2 homestand. Up next: the Yankees. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published April 10, 2017

Break up Steven Souza Jr.

One inning after the annual bench-clearing argument between the Rays outfielder and Blue Jays shortstop and royal pain Troy Tulowitzki, Souza got the best of Tulo, just like he keeps getting the best of this young season.

It's a small sampling, but it beats the previous Souza model, the one that Rays fans had grown weary of across two injury-infested, strikeout-filled seasons, that faraway look as Souza trudged away from the plate.

This model, new and improved, healthy and focused, hit his first home run of the season, a three-run job in the third inning, to put the Rays ahead to stay in a 7-2 victory on Sunday that gave Tampa Bay five wins in its first seven games for the first time in franchise history.

Souza is a big part of that. You heard me. He had the tying hit in the eighth inning Saturday to help the Rays win, one night after his Friday go-ahead double in a Rays win. And there was Sunday.

This Steven Souza Jr. is batting .409, near the top of the American League. This Souza gets on base. This Souza is hitting anything that moves — and not missing. He has struck out only twice, or once every 15.5 plate appearances. The old Souza struck out once every 41 minutes.

Not a whiff of the old Souza.

"We'll revisit that question at the end of the year," Souza said with a grin.

It's just a week.

Souza-Tulowitzki is a bit older. It goes back to last September, when Rays and Jays benches cleared in Toronto after Souza nearly hit a go-ahead homer in the ninth, then misunderstood what Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin said to him after. Then Martin misunderstood Souza. Things were calming down when Tulo intervened.

Cut to Sunday. Bottom of the second inning. Souza, having walked, was leading off first base when Logan Morrison smashed a grounder to first baseman Justin Smoak, who stepped on the bag and fired to Tulowitzki for the tag at second. Souza, with his back to Smoak, began his slide late — too late, awkward late, two giraffe legs tumbling into second, one clipping one of Tulowitzki's cleats. Words. Heat. Empty benches. Nothing more. Such is baseball.

"I definitely respect the game and I felt like it was a little late, figured I should say something," Tulowitzki said. "Not so much that just for myself, but for other guys maybe in the future, you just try to save injuries. Honestly, I just felt it was a little late."

"I'm not going to play every game and wonder if Tulo is going to get upset about it," Souza said. "I'm playing hard, and if he thinks that I'm trying to be malicious then he clearly doesn't know who I am. It's unfortunate that it turned into something like that, because it was just baseball. Hopefully we can just squash it and move on because I'm really tired of having a feud with that."

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Souza tried to clear things up in the bottom of the third, talking with Martin at the plate.

"He was just trying to protect his player," Souza said. "He thought it was dangerous. I said listen, it was late, I didn't know what was going on behind me, and we cleared the air."

Then Souza cleared the bases.

He later gave some credit to Rays manager Kevin Cash, who had truly had enough as he watched Souza and Martin gab. Big at-bat here, two men on and all. Cash began yelling from the dugout. Then home plate umpire Mike Muchlinski became involved. But Cash wasn't yelling at Martin or the umpire.

"He was yelling at me," Souza said. "He was telling me to shut up and get in the box. I did."

He did.

Who doesn't want Steven Souza Jr. at the plate right now?

On to Week 2.