Outfielder Stephen Souza Jr. is excited to be able to continue his season playing in the Arizona Fall League, even if it is only two games a week.
Souza is on Mesa’s taxi squad, which means he is eligible to play Wednesday and Saturday each week for the Solar Sox.
Souza’s first week went so well he was nominated for Player of the Week even though he played in just two games and everyone else had the opportunity to play in at least six contests.
“It is going great,” Souza said of his Arizona experience. “It is kind of cool because it is a new role that I have never experienced, kind of coming off the bench, maybe not playing every day, only getting an AB couple times a week. I am learning how to prepare in a different way for that. Hopefully, that will prepare me for some time in the big leagues if I am coming off the bench. Honestly, I am just thankful to be here.”
Souza battled through a sore shoulder and other nagging injuries while with Double-A Harrisburg, but was counted on as their top power hitter. Souza hit .300 in 77 games for the Senators with 15 homers, 44 RBIs and 54 runs. Harrisburg reached the Eastern League finals for the first time since 1999.
“I think every season I learn something from it,” Souza said. “It took me through a lot of injuries this year. What was kind of cool is every time I came back from injury, it was almost like a little leap of faith my swing was going to be there. Both injuries kept me out about a month or so. I am thankful that it was. But it was just a fun year. We made the playoffs and went to the championship.
“I wouldn’t say I took huge leaps and bounds. I think I took leaps and bounds of handling some adversity, learning how to cope with different pitchers. I would have to be around older guys, little small things, nothing huge. It was just a really fun season.”
His hitting coaches in Arizona are Triple-A Syracuse hitting coach Troy Gingrich and Brian Harper (no relation to Bryce or Bryan Harper). Souza said he has worked with Gingrich since he arrived as a third-round selection in 2007.
“I have known Troy since I was drafted,” Souza said. “I think out of the gate, we have had a special bond. Every year, in the offseason, I fly out to his house in January and we hit for a week or so. He fine tunes whatever I do to get ready in the offseason. He is a great help here to stay on me because he knows me.
“Harper has been awesome. He is a great guy to have. Troy is real good (at) mechanical and mental stuff, and Harper really got to me with some mental stuff actually teaching me how to come off the bench and how to be prepared to play once a week or twice a week and learning how to step in there. They both have been so helpful to me.”
Souza also was able to steal six bases in his first four games in Arizona. He had 20 stolen bases for Harrisburg this season. Since 2007, Souza has stolen 130 bases in the minors. He credits former major league outfielder and current Nationals coach Tony Tarasco for his ability on the basepaths.
“I owe everything that I have learned on the bases to Tony Tarasco,” Soouza said. “From the day I got drafted, I was brutal. I didn’t know when to go. I was always trying to make things happen. He kind of pulled the reins on me and taught me specific situations and what to look for.
“We just worked on it. We would go out in the morning early all the time. He would take the time to just explain things to me and help me out. It has become a part where it is second nature because I can hear him in the back of my head. Sometimes, even when I don’t want it, when I get doubled off, I can hear him yelling at me. I am thankful to be able to use that now and use it as a tool.”
Not to give away trade secrets, but what does he use to get that advantage on the basepaths?
“I don’t know if it is one specific thing,” Souza said. “Each situation brings up its own specific key. Whether that be the time, if he has got a rhythm, a tempo that he is giving away. I am always just trying to be aware. That is what me and (Brian Goodwin) are doing on the bench. When I am with Michael Taylor or Billy Burns, whenever I am playing with those guys, we are always trying to pick up something.
“That is what Tarasco taught us: If we can grab an edge on anything, on any pitch, we will be one step ahead and get that better jump. If they don’t pay attention to me, I am going to take advantage of it.”
With Souza’s power, speed and athletic ability on defense, he presents as a multi-tooled ballplayer who could make a break through to the Nationals next season or in 2015.