- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hours before batting practice, three Washington Nationals would jog out to right field with a football.

Backup first baseman Tyler Moore, a high school quarterback, was always the play-caller. Reserve outfielders Michael Taylor and Steven Souza Jr. alternated as receiver and defender. One lined up and ran a route across the field. The other tried to stop him.

“Just to get the blood flowing,” Taylor said.

The pregame football sessions are a form of conditioning, the three players say, a way to warm up before lifting weights or taking swings in the batting cage. They started the tradition in Atlanta, where the Nationals clinched the division title, and continued in Miami and Washington, when the team returned home.

On Sunday, the Nationals did not take batting practice on the field, so the trio did not play football. But in the ninth inning, when Souza left his feet to save Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter, he dove backwards, caught the ball in the web of his mitt and covered it with his other hand. It was a familiar motion.

“Like a football,” Souza said.

SEE ALSO: Jordan Zimmermann throws no-hitter vs. Marlins in Nationals’ regular-season finale

For almost every no-hitter, there is a defining defensive play. And in Zimmermann’s no-hitter, it was Souza’s. The rookie entered Sunday’s game as a defensive replacement in the ninth and snagged the only ball hit in his direction, capping Zimmermann’s historic performance and a 1-0 win for the Nationals.

He dove backwards for the first time in his career, like a wide receiver on a deep route. Then he controlled the ball as he fell to the grass.

“I just covered it with the second hand,” Souza said. “I leapt so high in the air that the ball could fly out. I was just making sure that ball was not coming out.”

Souza used the football comparison in large part because he was originally a football player. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound outfielder was a standout wide receiver for two seasons at Cascade High School in Everett, Washington. He once considered abandoning his baseball career to play football, one of the reasons he enjoys throwing the ball around with Moore and Taylor before games.

“Maybe it helped,” Taylor said.

On Sunday, it certainly seemed that way.

SEE ALSO: LOVERRO: As Derek Jeter departs, Yankees now A-Rod’s team

Jayson Werth watched from the bench as Souza sprinted to left field in the ninth, a defensive replacement for Ryan Zimmerman. Werth had only one thought: “This is not optimal to be Steven Souza right now.”

“Because as soon as you come in the game,” Werth explained, “every time, the ball’s going to find you.”

Werth stood next to outfield coach Tony Tarasco in the dugout as the inning unraveled. The veteran said Tarasco was relaying signs to Souza, instructing him to move closer and closer to the left-field foul line. So when Christian Yelich smacked Zimermann’s fastball to the left-center field gap, Werth said Souza “probably couldn’t have been more out of position.”

“It was heartbreak off the bat,” closer Drew Storen added.

Souza tried to take a good angle toward the ball. “Oh my gosh,” he thought as he sprinted toward the warning track, “this is going to be pretty close.” He said he kind of blacked out. Then he tumbled to the ground, ball in hand, no-hitter secure.

“That catch is just a small part of a whole game,” Souza said. “It’s just awesome to see what [Zimmermann] did today.”

Souza hugged Zimmermann on the field, then walked to the dugout, down the steps and toward the clubhouse. Shortly after his feet hit the clubhouse’s carpet, Taylor walked up to him.

“Tyler led you a little bit too much right there,” he said. “But way to go get it.”

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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