With challenges behind him, Souza making strides
Nationals outfielder putting effort into well-rounded game to move up in Minors
VIERA, Fla. -- One thing can be said about outfielder Steven Souza: He is not afraid to work. It's 10:30 a.m. ET at the Nationals' Minor League complex, and Souza already is working on his swing in the hitting cage.
Souza, 23, is coming off the best season of his professional career. He played for Class A Hagerstown and Potomac and hit a combined .297 with 23 home runs, 85 RBIs, 14 stolen bases and a .366 on-base percentage. Souza credited a new mental approach for the improved numbers.
"Honestly, I didn't make a huge amount of adjustments to my swing. It was more of a mindset," said Souza, who was drafted by the Nats in the third round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. "I was baptized in January of last year. I started to give my game to God and the glory to play for him. I think sometimes we get so caught up in the pressures of this game. I just try to go out and play and have fun. My coaches have been telling me to just go out and play for years, but it never really sank in. Finally, I said, 'OK, whatever happens here, God has it under control.' I was just going to go out and play."
There was a point in Souza's career that he let the pressure get the best of him. On July 15, 2010, he was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for Methylphenidate and Ritalinic Acid -- performance-enhancing substances in violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
Souza didn't hesitate talking about the suspension. He vowed that he wasn't going to let it derail his career, and he knew he couldn't make any more mistakes.
"I was a young kid looking for a quick fix when I was tired," Souza said. "In that moment, it was a bad choice. Now that God has entered my life and took it over, those choices that I had in those moments were the easy way out.
"Everybody makes mistakes, but it's how you bounce back and learn from those mistakes. And if you keep making the same mistakes over again, then you really didn't learn from them. It was a dumb decision."
Souza has since moved on, and he is continuing to hone his skills as a recently converted outfielder. Once a below-average infielder, Souza can man all three outfield positions and play them well.
"Being in the outfield allows him to show off his athleticism a little more," said Nationals first-base coach Tony Tarasco. "He is a tall kid, nice long strides. He is faster than most people think he is. He has a great arm. He wants the baseball."
Asked what position in the outfield he likes to play the most, Souza said he prefers right field.
"I played center at the end of the season last year, and it was fun and I had a blast doing it," Souza said. "But I love right field. I feel like you get to throw more people out from out there. You get a little more opportunities out there and it's fun."
Tarasco was the organization's outfield and baserunning coordinator last year, and he said he used Souza as an example on how to run the bases the right way. That wasn't always the case prior to last year. Souza has speed, but he had to learn how to use it well.
"He started out as one of my most naïve baserunners," Tarasco recalled.
But Souza decided to change his approach after Tarasco told him he may have a tough time moving up in professional baseball.
"He challenged me to come out by myself and just run the bases when nobody was here," Souza said. "It was 6 in the morning. Sometimes, it would be just me and him talking about [the nuances] of the game on the basepaths. That ended up translating to confidence on the basepaths. It made me relax. I feel so much more confidence, it's a big part of my game."
It's not known where Souza will play this year, but he's aiming for Double-A Harrisburg.
"I would love to break in with Harrisburg. That would be awesome," Souza said. "If not, I would go wherever they want me to go. Wherever they send me, I'm going to go out and have fun. Whoever I'm playing for, I'm just going to play as hard as I can for them and with them."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.