Tampa Bay’s Steven Souza Jr. takes batting practice at Safeco Field before a game against Seattle on June 3, 2017. The Cascade High School alumnus has since been traded to Arizona, but he hit 30 home runs for the Rays in 2017. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Tampa Bay’s Steven Souza Jr. takes batting practice at Safeco Field before a game against Seattle on June 3, 2017. The Cascade High School alumnus has since been traded to Arizona, but he hit 30 home runs for the Rays in 2017. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Sports Man of the Year: Baseball player Steven Souza Jr.

The Everett native became the third Snohomish County player to hit 30 homers in an MLB season.

Steven Souza Jr. didn’t set out to become a part of Snohomish County history. Indeed, all Souza wanted was get through a whole Major League Baseball season healthy.

But not only did Souza make it through the 2017 in one piece, he also managed to join select company when it comes to Snohomish County major leaguers.

The Cascade High School graduate became just the third county native ever to hit 30 home runs in a Major League Baseball season when he accomplished the feat for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2017, and his accomplishment made him the Herald’s 2017 Man of the Year in Sports.

Souza will be honored at the Snohomish County Sports Hall of Fame Banquet on Sept. 19 at the Edward D. Hansen Conference Center at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett.

In 2017 Souza had one of the finest MLB seasons ever produced by a Snohomish County native. In 148 games for the Rays he had a triple-slash line of .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs, 78 RBI and 16 stolen bases for a Tampa Bay team that finished 80-82. He was second on the team in homers, third in RBI, tied for first in stolen bases and first in walks (84). For his efforts he was named the team’s Most Valuable Player by the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

“It was definitely a special year,” Souza said when reached by cell phone in San Francisco last week. “I think the biggest thing was God just keeping me healthy all year. Throughout the five years of my big-league career I’ve been injured at one point in the year. But I was able to be on the field for 148 games and I was able to show the talents I have in me. It was a lot of fun.”

Souza’s major-league career prior to 2017 was a start-and-stop affair. He began cropping up on Washington Nationals top-prospect lists following a strong 2012 minor-league campaign, and by 2014 appeared ready to slide into the Nationals’ outfield.

However, shortly after being called up in August he suffered a shoulder injury while trying to make a home run-saving catch, halting his momentum.

Souza was traded to Tampa Bay following the 2014 season and earned a starting spot with the Rays. However August brought another injury, this time Souza suffered a broken hand when hit by a pitch. Then in 2016 he had his season ended by a torn labrum in his hip. Prior to 2017 Souza had never appeared in more than 120 games in a major-league season, and he’d never slugged more than 17 homers in a campaign.

But it all came together for Souza in 2017. He remained injury-free and had a breakout season.

“I think he’ll tell you as much as anyone about what he went through to get to where he got to,” said former Cascade High School baseball coach Scott Stencil, who coached the Bruins when Souza was a senior. “To see him put together a year like that was really cool. Not that I was surprised, but it was cool considering the difficulties he went through to get to that point.”

Souza’s home-run exploits put him in some exclusive company, as he is now one of three Snohomish County natives to break the 30-homer barrier in the majors. Fellow Cascade High School graduate Grady Sizemore — with whom Souza shared a locker stall with the Rays in 2015 — bashed 33 homers with the Cleveland Indians in 2008. Snohomish High School product and Baseball Hall of Famer Earl Averill had seasons of 32, 32 and 31 homers between 1931-34.

“Oh man, those are great players,” Souza said about joining that group. “It’s an honor just being mentioned with Grady. Having played with him and knowing the talent he had, it’s pretty amazing. I don’t know Earl’s story as well, but it’s cool being a part of that Snohomish County group.”

Souza’s homer binge didn’t just put himself into county lore, it also contributed to a good cause. Before the season Souza and his wife, Mikaela, pledged $1,000 dollars for every homer he hit to Consider the Lily, a Philippines-based charitable organization dedicated to ending human trafficking in the sex industry, particularly among young girls.

“I figured it would be $12,000, $15,000, and that $20,000 would be amazing,” Souza said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d donate $30,000. That was the best part of the year, writing that check for $30,000 knowing every homer supported girls who needed rescuing from abusive situations in the Philippines.”

Souza was traded again during the offseason, this time to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Unfortunately, he was bit by the injury bug again during spring training, suffering a pectoral injury that’s dogged him throughout the season. But Souza is playing again — through Sunday he was batting .245 with four homers and 27 RBI in 56 games — and he finds himself in the midst of a pennant race as Arizona is in the hunt both for the National League West title and a wild-card berth.

But whatever happens, either this year and the rest of Souza’s career, he’ll always be a member of Snohomish County’s 30-homer club.

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