Patrick Reddington: Changes in mental approach helped Roark, Souza become more major league-ready

Tanner Roark struggled at Triple-A in 2012, but "just got over it mentally," as he put it this past winter when asked about his breakout campaign in 2013.

"That was the biggest thing," the 27-year-old right-hander said. "I knew I had the tools, I just needed to get out of my own head and that's what helped me come up here and be able to do what I'm doing right now and keep doing what I'm doing, hopefully for a long time."

The former Texas Rangers prospect finished the 2012 season at Triple-A Syracuse in the Nats system 6-17 with a 4.39 ERA, a 3.81 FIP, 47 walks (2.86 BB/9) and 130 strikeouts (7.92 K/9) in 147 2/3 innings. Through 29 major league appearances, 20 as a starter covering 147 1/3 innings, Roark is 14-5 with a 2.32 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 34 walks (2.08 BB/9) and 112 strikeouts (6.84 K/9) after close to a year with the Nationals.

Steven Souza, a 2007 third-round pick out of Cascade High School in Everett, Wash., was 22 when he walked away from the Potomac Nationals in 2011 following an argument with Nats bullpen coach Matt LeCroy, the P-Nats manager that season.

Souza returned to the organization and posted a combined .297/.366/.572 line with 22 doubles and 23 homers in 97 games and 400 at-bats between low Single-A Hagerstown and high Single-A Potomac in 2012. He then put up a .300/.396/.557 line in 77 games and 323 plate appearances at Double-A Harrisburg in 2013. He hit 23 doubles and 15 homers that year.

In the Arizona Fall League last fall, Souza capped off a strong season with an 11-game run in which he put up a .357/.426/.476 line with two doubles, a home run, five walks, 11 strikeouts and 10 stolen bases in 47 plate appearances.

"I think I got out of my own head," Souza told reporters this winter when asked about success which set him up for a shot at the major league level this season. "Really I just kind of started playing for God and just enjoying the game so much. I got caught so much in making it to the big leagues instead of just playing the game and letting the path take itself. And so, really freeing up that mental aspect has really allowed me to just (play) the game and not put too much pressure and have a lot of fun."

The fun has continued this season. Through 58 games at Triple-A Syracuse, Souza has hit 13 doubles and 10 home runs while posting a .368/.462/.584 line. His 1.045 OPS leads all qualified International League hitters. He's been up and down to the majors twice already, and if he keeps getting on base and hitting like he has, he'll be back up at some point.

When a reader asked Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell about the 25-year-old Souza getting another shot in the Nationals outfield, however, Boswell wrote that while Souza's "performance MUST at some point be rewarded with a fair opportunity," he had to admit that the outfielder "did not look particularly comfortable at the MLB level" over his first nine plate appearances so far this year, an obviously small sample size.

Chiefs skipper Billy Gardner Jr. talked Souza up in a recent interview with Syracuse.com writer Brent Axe, telling the reporter Souza's bat was "his meal ticket to the big leagues."

"I just love the at-bat he gives you," Garnder continued. "He gives you a highly competitive at-bat. He's a big-time threat in the middle of the order."

If he does continue to hit like he has, Souza will get another look at some point this season. Whatever happens, he said this winter he'd be ready for it.

"From a couple years ago to maybe being let go from the team to where God's brought me here," he said. "It's really just humbling and it's really just exciting to think about I can have a chance to help this team basically just win a World Series."

Souza's come a long way in a short time. Confidence is part of what allowed him to do it.

Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. Follow him on Twitter: @federalbaseball. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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