Single-A Potomac Nationals third baseman Steven Souza feels like he has a new lease on his baseball life and he is taking full advantage of it.
In July 2010, Souza made a mistake. Souza was feeling tired and worn down after a long road trip, so he took a pill to get himself up for an early doubleheader. That day he was tested for performance-enhancing drugs. Souza tested positive, and subsequent suspension ended his season with Double-A Hagerstown. Also implicated was teammate J.R. Higley.
Souza and Higley each received 50-game suspensions after testing positive for Methylphenidate and Ritalinic Acid, performance-enhancing substances in violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
Souza, a 2010 South Atlantic League All-star at shortstop, regrets that decision to this day, but says he has learned a very valuable lesson.
"I didn't take a steroid," Souza explains. "I didn't sit there and poke a needle in my blood every day. I broke a rule. I took an amphetamine. I came off a bus trip and we had a doubleheader the next day and a day game the day before. It was really wearing on me. Instead of taking the right route and maybe eating a little more and getting better sleep, I took the shortcut and it was a regrettable decision."
Souza said he was able to do a lot of soul searching about baseball and his life and came back stronger, more determined and appreciative that he still gets to play the game he loves.
"It was a one-time deal and I regret it every minute of every day," Souza said. "At the same time, when I went home I realized a lot things. It kind of hit me. My family was really supportive. The Nationals were disappointed but they didn't kick me to the curb."
The Washington Nationals did not give up on Souza, a third-round pick in 2007. They promoted him in 2011 because they see he has the body type and the potential to be a very good player.
"He is a great kid," Nationals director of player development Doug Harris said. "Steven is intelligent, hard-working and passionate. He made a poor decision and he paid for it."
Souza, an Everett, Wash., native remembers those quiet final months of the season as a time for inner reflection.
"I was in the middle of Georgia, where no one was around me, and I really found myself," Souza said. "I really found out much this game really means to me. It made me understand that I don't have to take shortcuts. I said, 'Let's try and work as hard as I can.' I had worked hard before, but it made the game more precious to me when it was taken away from me.
"I actually am grateful for everything that happened to me. Yes, my name is everywhere and people say things to me. You know what? Stuff happens in life and it is the way you bounce back is how I look at it."
Souza has bounced back in a big way with his promotion to High-A Potomac. The 6-foot-3, 205-lb. third baseman is off to a great start. Through 11 games, he is batting .282 with two doubles, two triples, four homers and 15 RBIs. His slugging percentage is .744.
Souza said his strategy in 2011 was to keep it calm and simple at the plate.
"I came into this year really put it in myself to try to not do too much," Souza said. "I am just squaring up the ball. I am taking my at-bats one by one and day by day. That is how I am going to approach this entire season. So far, it has worked out really well. If I can stay with that and be consistent, then hopefully I can spread out the numbers throughout the whole season. Right now, it is taking advantage of the pitches I am getting and taking advantage of seeing the ball very well and acting on it."
Souza also said it doesn't hurt having so many good players around him on the Potomac roster. That way, each player doesn't feel like they have to do everything on the field to make them successful.
"It is really exciting to look every where on the field and see the talent," Souza said. "Guys can do so many different things. I think throughout my years in the minor leagues this is the best team I have been on as far as what everyone can do."
The team is in the midst of a 17-game road trip because of poor field conditions at Woodbridge, Va., and had a rocky start. But Souza believes the P-Nats are still playing well and are destined to get rolling with the talent they can put on the field.
"Our record might not show it right now, but we have been in every game and that is all you can ask for," Souza said. "The demeanor is, we know we are going to come to the field to win. It is great because it takes a lot of pressure off yourself and off of everybody else because you don't have to hit a home run every game. There is a different hero every game and it makes it fun to be around."
And don't try to beat Souza at Sudoku. He got a 1560 on his SAT while in high school. He said mathematics always came pretty easy to him while in school. Think it was a fluke? His father got a perfect score of 1600.
"The funny part is my sister got a lower score than me, but you will never hear about that," Souza said. "It is just between me and my Dad. It is just, "I got a higher score than you!" You get ribbed a little bit, (but) it is pretty funny."