ST. PETERSBURG, FL. — Some still argue that no matter how quirky and raw he might have been, the Rays would have been better off if they had just left well-enough alone and held on to Wil Myers.
Others argue that if they were so dead-set on moving the strapping young power hitter, then they should have stopped at the point where they had pitcher Joe Ross and infielder Trea Turner in hand.
As for the Rays, they’re not into re-writing history. When they dealt Myers to the Padres in a three-team deal with the Nationals three years ago, Steven Souza Jr. was their target; we’re finally beginning to see why.
With a .349/.438/.603 slash line, 3 homers and 15 RBIs through 17 games, Souza finally appears to be on the verge of his long-awaited breakout, the roots of which were buried at a breakfast in Baltimore late last season.
Rays reliever Chase Whitley can’t remember exactly what day it was or even the name of the place. All he remembers is that it was him, Souza and pitcher Alex Cobb and that he and Cobb felt the time had come to let Souza in on the truth about himself.
“We were like, ‘Dude, the way you go about your business, you’re way too talented to be so inconsistent,’’’ Whitley said. “I mean, the dude works so hard and he’s a top-notch player, a top-notch teammate and a top-notch guy. But sometimes, he’s definitely his own worst enemy.’’
Souza doesn’t deny the charge. He’ll be the first to tell you he winds himself up a bit too tightly at times. Even off the field he says he has a tendency to overanalyze things. When it comes to baseball, though, it’s even worse.
His pre-game routine has included wearing goggles designed to create a tunnel-vision-like focus on the pitcher; hitting whiffle balls that make hitting a baseball seem like you’re hitting a cantaloupe and throwing a flattened baseball that forces you to make a more mechanically sound throw.
They’re all good tools, but Souza was born with some pretty good tools himself. In 2014, for example, he earned three places on the International League’s Best Tools list for being its Best Power Prospect, its Best Baserunner and for having its Best Outfield Arm.
What’s kept the 6-foot-4, 225-pound native of Everett, Washington from taking full advantage of all those tools is his tendency to over-think the game, which is the point Whitely and Cobb tried to make during that breakfast in Baltimore.
“Sometimes you can get in the box and you (start to think) about what people expect you to be and you’re trying to live up to the expectations of the people around you … but they were like, ‘Just let your tools play; play free,’’’ Souza said.
It didn’t hurt that when new Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola arrived late last season he started to tell Souza the same thing. Nor has it hurt that Mottola has encouraged Souza to simply be a little more aggressive at the plate and to carry himself with a little more swagger up there.
“I’m just blessed that I have two guys on this team that were harping on me for a while and that said the same thing that ‘Motor’ said and, so I feel like God just placed them there for me and that message is just to go out and play free,’’ Souza said.
“I mean, that’s literally as simple as the message was. They were like, ‘You’re blessed with some tools. Let them play. Stop thinking and go out there and enjoy the game,’ and believe me it’s a lot more fun playing this way. A lot more fun.’’
Seriously, what’s not fun about nearly hitting for the cycle, as Souza did on Thursday when he hit a triple, double, and home run and drove in 3 runs in 5 at-bats to lead the Rays to an 8-1 win over the Tigers, whom the Rays swept in a three-game series.
And what’s not fun about reaching base more than once in a game for the 12th time already this year, a feat that has Souza tied with Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs for tops in all of baseball in that category.
And really, what’s not fun about hitting .363/.454/.647 with 7 homers and 21 RBI, which is what Souza has done over the course of his last 28 games dating back to last year and that late-season breakfast he had with his buddies in Baltimore.
That’s what makes you believe that what Souza is on right now is not just a hot streak but a true breakout. His entire approach to the game has changed and in particular, his entire approach to hitting has changed, Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
“We all know that Steven has the all the tools in the world, but I think the biggest adjustment he’s made is he’s put himself in a position from pitch 1 where he’s ready to hit,’’ Cash said. “He doesn’t have to hit that first pitch but he’s ready to hit it if it’s to his liking.’’
What is mostly to Souza’s liking is the fact that his fast start has helped the Rays move above the .500 mark and win three of their five series, including their two season-opening series against their AL East rivals, the Yankees and Blue Jays.
“We’re doing a good job of putting competitive at-bats together,’’ Souza said. “Last year we lived and died with the home run but now, when we’re getting walks, guys are getting the run in and that’s what’s going to get us to where we want to be at the end of the year.
“And that’s really what matters most to me. I just want us to win and make the playoffs in some way and the fact we’re over .500 now and we’ve beaten some of these first-place teams, I think that shows something about us and who we are.’’