- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

When Steven Souza Jr. first stepped into the batter’s box on Wednesday night, the ovation he received was loud and long. He stepped into box, then back out, swinging his bat and tipping his helmet as cheers echoed throughout Nationals Park. It was the type of return that, just seven months ago, Souza never thought he would have to make.

Instead, here he was, back in the city that was once his home, pestering the organization that drafted him in 2007 and shipped him to the Tampa Bay Rays in December. In his first trip to Nationals Park since being traded, Souza went-3 for-4 with a solo home run to left field in the fifth inning. He also smartly dropped a bunt into the wet grass in the eighth, rounding the bases after two Washington Nationals errors to score. The Nationals lost, 5-0.

“It was rewarding,” Souza said of his performance. “I think more rewarding was the fact that we came back from getting our tails whooped yesterday [in a 16-4 loss] and came out here full-force, like nothing had happened. To me, that’s more rewarding than anything I can do out there on the field.”

Souza’s time in Washington was brief but memorable. Though he only played in 21 games for the Nationals in 2014, frequently shuttling between Triple-A Syracuse and the big leagues, his name will forever be etched in the franchise’s history. His sprinting, sprawling, over-the-shoulder basket catch in the ninth inning of the regular-season finale saved Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter, the first for the Nationals.

In a fitting twist, Souza’s first at-bat in his return came against Zimmermann, who had retired the first five batters of the game in order. This time, Souza broke up a no-hitter, slapping a single to left field. It was a meeting they had joked about earlier in the week.

“He texted me,” Souza said before the game. “He told me I better not get too comfortable in there, and I told him I’d be ready.”

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When the two met again in the fifth inning, Zimmermann left a slider up in the strike zone and Souza deposited it in the left-field bleachers, just beyond the visitors’ bullpen.

“Obviously I want to get him out. Couldn’t do it tonight,” Zimmermann said. “He’s a good hitter. He’s still really really young, and he’s probably going to turn [out] to be a really good ballplayer. But obviously if you make mistakes, they make you pay at this level, and he did that tonight.”

Then, with two outs and a runner on first base in the eighth inning, the mistakes continued. As a light rain fell on the infield, Souza had an idea. He thought a well-placed bunt would create a difficult play for pitcher Blake Treinen, and he was right. Treinen’s throw to first base sailed over Danny Espinosa’s head. Bryce Harper then collected the ball and threw it past catcher Jose Lobaton. Souza jogged home on the error to complete the rare “Little League home run.”

“If it’s dry, I’m probably not even thinking about [bunting], to be honest with you,” Souza said. “It’s tough to throw a wet ball in the rain. And then I thought getting off the mound was going to be tough in general. So I was just trying to make something happen.”

Souza was one of the key pieces in a three-team, 11-player trade that sent Rays outfielder Wil Myers to San Diego. In return, the Rays got the 26-year-old Souza, among other prospects, and the Nationals received Joe Ross and Trea Turner. Originally listed as a “player to be named later,” Turner finally joined the organization over the weekend, per league rules.

Souza was in Washington when he was first notified of the trade. He said he experienced a mixture of emotions in quick succession. He was excited about the opportunity to play every day in Tampa Bay, but also grateful to the organization that drafted him in 2007, particularly general manager Mike Rizzo.

“When I got drafted, it was a dual GM with Jim Bowden, and he stuck out his neck for me,” Souza explained. “Jim didn’t want to draft me, and Mike did want to draft me. So, everything that he stuck with me, just really his relationship with me, it means a lot. It was hard to say goodbye, but again, he was excited for me as well.”

In the Nationals‘ clubhouse, the feelings were mutual.

“We joked about it all the time that it was going to happen one day. There’s no chance that we play our whole careers together on the same team,” said outfielder Michael A. Taylor, who is one of Souza’s closest friends. “But like I said, I was happy for him that he landed in a good position and got a good opportunity.”

Including Wednesday, Souza has appeared in 62 of Tampa Bay’s 67 games this season, showing glimpses of the power that made him Washington’s minor-league player of the year in 2014. He has also struggled to make contact at times. His 84 strikeouts ranked second in the majors.

“It’s been a learning process,” Souza said. “I really don’t like to sit there and evaluate my season personally. … But we’re winning, and as long as we can keep winning ballgames and I can help, that’s all I can ask.”

Souza is still adjusting to his new team. After all, many of his fondest memories are still in Washington. After the 26-year-old’s no-hitter-saving catch, for example, Zimmermann said he would buy Souza a gift. “Whatever he wants he can have,” the right-hander joked, so Souza sarcastically suggested a BMW.

Though there was an eventual gift given, Souza said it was not, in fact, a new car. Zimmermann gave him a gift card to Best Buy with “way too much” money on it, according to Souza. He used the card to purchase nearly all of the electronics in a new house that he had bought during the offseason.

“I was super thankful for that,” Souza said.

To leave memories and relationships like those behind has been a challenge, Souza said, but he is forever grateful for the opportunity that Washington gave him — and the opportunity that he has now to play in the major leagues on a daily basis.

“I just tried to wipe a clean slate and try not to hold any coaches or staff or players like the ones I had over here and just start new,” he said. “It was an interesting adventure.”

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