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Souza living up to promise with Rays

 
Steven Souza Jr. is congratulated after hitting a solo home run.
Steven Souza Jr. is congratulated after hitting a solo home run.
Published June 6, 2015

SEATTLE — On the flight into town late Wednesday, manager Kevin Cash decided to have a little fun with rookie Steven Souza Jr. Knowing how much the Seattle-area native was looking forward to playing for the first time in front of dozens of relatives and friends, Cash sent word they planned to give him a couple of days off over the weekend.

"He about flipped," Cash laughed.

There certainly are times when Souza, although 26, seems every bit the rookie who had played only 21 games in the majors before being brought in, through the complexities of a three-team, 11-player trade, to essentially be an upgrade over Wil Myers.

Souza's 74 strikeouts (second most in the majors through Thursday), occasionally adventurous baserunning, and at times out-of-control outfield play serve as reminders.

But there are increasingly long glimpses of the impact player the Rays project him to be, most noticeably the home runs he has been launching, going into play Friday topping American League rookies with 11 and co-leading with 26 RBIs, while hitting .230 with a .796 on-base plus slugging percentage.

"I think he has definitely lived up to everything we heard about when we acquired him," Cash said.

"I think we all understood that any young player is probably going to come up with so much hype and take some lumps, but they haven't beat him down. He's had some opportunities where he could have really lost confidence, and we were being asked, 'Are you going to play him? He needs an off-day.' This and that.

"We just kept playing him, and he keeps producing. He gets big hit after big hit. And I think with more at-bats he is going to continue to do that and probably find even more consistency."

And Souza said the primary goal indeed is becoming more consistent.

"There's days when I get in there and I feel unstoppable, and there's days when I get in there and it feels like I don't know how to hold a bat," he said. "So I'm just trying to eliminate those days to get the most consistency so I can be productive in different ways for the team."

The most impactful of those contributions thus far have been the home runs, including four in the first six games of the road trip.

"He's going to hit home runs," hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "We know that because the power is there. I think it's just a matter of getting the right pitch to hit, and he's hitting it. Earlier in the year, and we still see it at times, he misses some pitches. But when he hits it, it's going to go."

The tradeoff with young power hitters is often the high strikeouts, and Souza is just the latest example, though he has cut down from what earlier was a pace to break the MLB record of 223 in a season.

"We always want all of our guys to limit strikeouts as much as possible, but you take the good with some of the rough stuff," Cash said. "I think eventually that'll kind of soften a little bit, we hope. But he's doing a really good job."

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Encouraging is a walk rate — 11.9 percent, about 4 percent above average — that offsets the strikeouts somewhat. "So when you have that ying and yang, it's not anything that's alarming," Shelton said. "We know he's going to strikeout some, we know he's going to walk some, we know he's going to hit the ball out of the ballpark."

Plus, Shelton said, they keep in mind that he is still just a rookie.

"He's a really good kid," Shelton said. "He listens, he works hard, he gives you good feedback. So it's just part of the maturation. And we have to be patient with him."

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.