As a non-roster invitee, veteran Steven Souza Jr. knows he’s going to have to perform well this spring, and showing some versatility won’t hurt, either. Souza hit a two-run homer in his first start of the spring as the Astros’ right fielder in Houston’s 7-6 come-from-behind win over the Nationals on Monday at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
Souza is competing for a spot as the fourth outfielder, and playing some first base could help his chances of making the club. Souza has been working out at first with bench coach Joe Espada on the back fields. He hasn’t played first in a professional game since he was at Class A Advanced in 2011, but he expects to get some time at the position in a game this spring.
“The infield is something that’s not super foreign to me,” Souza said. “I’ve kind of sporadically messed around over there and made sure I stayed ready, because I can see the way the game has moved, and people need to be more versatile. I [think] it’s gone great. Joe’s been invaluable in helping me and getting me prepared for the game.”
Souza has played in just 83 games since the end of the 2017 season because of underperformance and injuries, including a left knee injury near the end of Spring Training that cost him the ’19 season. He played in only 11 games last year with the Cubs, and he spent time on the injured list with a right hamstring strain. Souza will have to keep swinging to make the club.
“I don’t know that I’m carrying any more weight on every at-bat than I have in the past, because I don’t know that’s conducive to success,” he said.
First taste of Majors drives Rodriguez
Pitching depth will probably be an issue for the Astros, considering the increased workloads pitchers will be asked to carry while going from a 60-game season to a 162-game season. Right-hander Nivaldo Rodriguez is a key depth piece for Houston moving forward, and he should figure into the team's plans at some point in 2021.
Rodriguez made his Grapefruit League debut Monday against Nationals and threw two scoreless innings, allowing two hits and one walk.
“It was the first outing, so I just have to keep working on some things to help me, and just throw the ball and trust my stuff,” he said.
Rodriguez, 23, hadn’t even thrown a pitch in Double-A when the Astros summoned him to the big leagues only a few days into the 2020 season. He wound up appearing in five games, posting a 6.23 ERA. He was one of 10 rookie pitchers to make his debut last year for Houston, which saw its depth tested with several injuries.
“It doesn’t matter to me where I open the season, whether it’s the big leagues or Triple-A,” Rodriguez said. “For me, it’s about working and focusing and always getting better. I know I’m going to push forward and be ready to contribute.”
Home runs don’t faze Cishek
After giving up backyard home runs to his daughter on Sunday, Astros reliever Steve Cishek hoped those were the only big flies he’d give up this spring. No such luck. The veteran sidearmer allowed back-to-back-to-back homers to Josh Harrison, Ryan Zimmerman and Yadiel Hernandez of the Nationals in the third inning Monday in his Grapefruit League debut.
“I figured I got them out of my system, but apparently I had some more to give up,” Cishek quipped. “It is what it is. It’s disappointing. You want to make a good first impression. Obviously, today wasn’t the best first impression, but it happens. I’m looking forward to the next outing, and overall I felt pretty good and I’m going to bank on that.”
The 11-year veteran, who is with the Astros on a Minor League deal, said it was the first time he’s given up three consecutive homers in a game, but the calendar reads March 1, which means results don’t much matter to him at his point. Two of the homers came on changeups, pitches he’s thrown only 18 times in the past three seasons.
“Obviously, first outing just messing around with some stuff,” he said. “Getting two quick outs might have gotten me too confident and throwing pitches I don’t typically throw … and there’s a reason why I don’t throw too many of those. It happens. First time for everything, I guess, giving up three homers back-to-back-to-back. Glad the first one is out of the way and looking forward to the next outing.”