In his last at-bat Sunday afternoon, Steven Souza Jr. grinned as he walked to the plate to face Astros right-hander Brad Peacock, his former teammate in the Nationals’ system. Peacock nodded and smiled back at him. “I would say he’s one of my best friends,” Souza said. “That’s why I love playing the game, stuff like that.”
Souza pounded a line drive to right-center field, and he chuckled as he sprinted around the bases for a triple, the last act of another good day. Souza has had reason to smile all spring, never more so than Sunday. Playing all nine innings in right field, Souza went 3 for 3, smashed two homers off Houston’s likely opening day starter, drew a walk and ripped that triple off his good friend.
Given the complexion of the Nationals’ roster, Souza remains a long shot to make the majors opening day. But he is giving the Nationals something to think about, and his spring suggests he will help the Nationals at some point this summer, either by opportunity or by force.
Souza, who was added to the 40-man roster this winter after a winding path, is 11 for 31 this spring with 10 extra-base hits, including a team-high three home runs. He has four walks and, despite swinging hard enough to slug .806, has just four strikeouts. The Nationals have certainly given him a long look – only Tyler Moore has more plate appearances than him this spring.
“The coaching staff has really helped me settle in, and the players and everything,” Souza said. “I’m just trying to play my own game. I’m not really worried about who’s on the mound so much. I’m trying to stay consistent with the game that I play.”
Souza’s big spring may not be enough to earn him a roster spot. Saturday, Manager Matt Williams said Souza, an infielder early in his minor league career, will not receive playing time at first base. And so for him to make the team, he’ll have to make it as a reserve outfielder.
That’s a tough way to try to make the Nationals. Nate McLouth is entrenched as the fourth outfielder after the Nationals signed him to a two-year deal worth more than $10 million this winter. Scott Hairston, who like Souza bats right-handed, hit .191 last season and has yet to find to his swing this spring. But he’s guaranteed $2.5 million and owns a track record for success against left-handed pitching.
Still, despite the veterans blocking him from a reserve outfield spot, the Nationals have not ruled out bringing Souza north. Souza has done his best not to think about it.
“I try and leave that to the top,” Souza said. “I just try to play the game and let God take care of the rest. It’s exciting. I know it sounds cliché, but I’m just thankful to be here. If it happens and I can help contribute up there, I’d be honored. If I got to go to Syracuse, I’m going to help that team win.”
While Souza won’t worry about his status, he has already begun to prepare for his likely major league role. He knows he would break into the majors as a reserve, something he’s never done in the minors. Saturday afternoon, he asked Nationals veteran Jamey Carroll about how to come off the bench.
“He’s helped me out so much,” Souza said. “It’s a different type of role, playing every day and coming off the bench. It’s just an honor to listen to him.”
In his first at-bat Sunday, Souza worked a 3-2 count against right-hander Scott Feldman, who tried to fool Souza with a curveball. Souza unleashed his compact swing and launched the ball, with the aid of a strong breeze, some 425 feet to left-center field. He crushed the curve, but he wasn’t specifically looking for it.
“It was more reaction,” Souza said. “I don’t really go up there and guess for pitches. I try and look for a ball out over the plate and do the best I can with it. He just happened to leave it up a little bit.”
In his next at-bat, Souza drilled another pitch, a 2-2 fastball, over the left-center field fence. He repeated his same home run trot, which is more of a home run sprint.
“I get in, I get out,” Souza said. “I’m not trying to show anyone up.”
But he is starting to give the Nationals a difficult choice.