Because of injuries, the Nationals have four rookies on the roster, and in the past week alone, two have made their major league debuts.
On Tuesday, two of the rookies notched firsts. Outfielder Steven Souza Jr., a late-game substitute with the victory out of reach, lined a single up the middle in the eighth inning for his first major league hit. An inning later, infielder Zach Walters smashed a first-pitch home run to right field for his first major league home run.
The moment meant so much to Souza that his voice quivered when he spoke with reporters after the game. His two-out single, and the subsequent throwing error by Marlins center fielder Marcell Ozuna, allowed Bryce Harper to score. Souza was stranded at first base and he was greeted by high-fives and hugs when entered the dugout after the inning.
“It’s so cool, man,” he said. “The love you get around here. The camaraderie. I’m just a new guy up here. Everybody is making me feel so welcome. To get hugs from [Ian Desmond], who I started with, to Tyler [Moore], one of my best friends. It’s just a moment I’ll never forget.”
Souza, 25, had a long, winding journey to this point. Three years ago, after a suspension for violating the league’s drug policy and being benched by his manager, Souza quit baseball and went home to Washington state to pursue football. He had a change of heart, redeemed himself with the Nationals and became a top prospect with his speed, strength and improved maturity. He reached the majors when Denard Span suffered a concussion. As he stood on first base, the memories of his path here filled his mind.
“Everything that came together at this point,” he said. “It’s one of those things you’ve come so far and the hard work and the people that helped me along this way. It’s a moment to share kinda with everyone.”
His family took two flights from Washington state to Atlanta for Sunday’s game against the Braves and they watched him make his major league debut and get his first at-bat. They didn’t come to Miami, but Souza said the ball of his first hit probably goes to his parents.
“It’s an exciting moment,” he said. “I just want to thank Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior for putting me in this position and giving me an opportunity to come out here. It’s an exciting moment for my family.”
Days ago, Souza and Walters were teammates at Class AAA Syracuse. With Ryan Zimmerman’s injury, the Nationals called up Walters to bolster the bench with a versatile, switch-hitting infielder. Walters replaced Ian Desmond in the sixth inning of a blowout. Before he stepped into the batter’s box to start the ninth inning, Walters checked with Manager Matt Williams about his approach.
“It was great,” he said. “I asked Matt if I could swing. I didn’t know if I was taking a strike. But got a fastball, was looking for it and just made good contact.”
Walters, 24, crushed the pitch from left-handed reliever Dan Jennings over the right field fence. He remembers little about what happened afterward in the dugout.
“I blacked out,” he said. “They were all hitting me on top of the head, slapping hands. Before I know it, I was sitting at the end of the bench.”
Walters, too, will get to keep the ball from his hit. He made his major league debut as a September call-up last season and notched his first hit then, too. But hitting his first long ball is an exciting moment in an overall surreal experience.
“The whole thing is a dream,” he said. “Just being here, this experience.”