Steven Souza, Jr. played only 21 games for the Nationals before getting traded to the Tampa Bay Rays this past offseason, the but the big-swinging outfielder will long be remembered for his final play in a Nats uniform. That would, of course, be his leaping grab in left-center field to save Jordan Zimmermann's no-hitter on the final day of the 2014 regular season.
So, as luck would have it, Souza returned to Nationals Park on Wednesday and faced none other than Zimmermann himself in his first at-bat back in Washington. Souza singled his first time up and homered in his second at-bat off Zimmermann. The single was the first hit of the day allowed by Zimmermann, adding a little bit of irony even though it was just 1 2/3 innings into his start.
"It's fun competing against your friend," Souza said. "He's a competitor. Just left a couple of pitches over the middle."
Souza also scored on a bunt in the eighth inning off reliever Blake Treinen with the help of two throwing errors. He also added a difficult sliding grab in foul territory to end the bottom of the second. The Rays won 5-0, completing a successful return for the former Nationals third round pick on a day that started with a loud applause from Nats fans when his name was called in pregame introductions.
"All the way around," Souza said. "The way the fans responded, that was pretty emotional and a pretty high moment for me. I know that Jordan deserves all of the honor and I deserve nothing, really. But to have them do that, that was pretty cool."
"That was awesome. What a nice applause the crowd gave him for a young player that's only spent a year here," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "That was pretty impressive to see. You can tell there are a lot of baseball fans here that probably appreciate the same things we appreciate about him. The way he plays the game, he's an exciting young player."
Souza is fitting in well with the Rays as a frontrunner for the American League Rookie of the Year award so far. It's still relatively early, but he leads all AL rookies in homers (13), RBI (30), walks (30), total bases (96) and runs (34). Souza is pacing the 37-30 Rays in nearly every offensive category.
The Nationals are already reaping the benefits of their return in the three-team December trade, with Joe Ross currently in their rotation and Trea Turner now headlining their farm system. But there's no question the Rays are happy with their side of the deal.
"Just the way he carries himself every single day," Cash explained. "He cares so much. He works extremely hard. He's just such a good teammate and a good person. He goes about everything he does the right way. He's always wanting to learn and try to get better. I guess on top of everything, he's just a really good player."
Though Souza was the key contributor to a Nationals' shutout loss, his former teammates can't help but appreciate his success this year from afar.
"I love the kid. We're really good friends, and I'm happy to see him have success over there," Ian Desmond said. "That's what you want. You want players to get an opportunity to play, and when they do, to succeed. He's doing that over there. He's having a nice season. I'm sure not all of his numbers aren't where he wants them to be, but he's grinding it out for his team and they're in first place in the AL East."
"He's a good hitter. He's still really, really young and he's probably going to turn into a really good ballplayer," Zimmermann said.
Souza will always hold a place in Nationals history, but now he's on a different first-place team and loving every part of it.
"It was rewarding. But I think it was more rewarding the way we came back after getting our tails whipped yesterday," he said.