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D-backs’ Lovullo sees surging Souza letting his natural instincts take over

Arizona Diamondbacks' Steven Souza Jr. hits an RBI-single in the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Monday, Aug. 6, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — Arizona Diamondbacks right fielder Steven Souza Jr. had more to worry about this season than being the main name tasked with replacing J.D. Martinez.

A right pectoral strain suffered in the spring had him not even make his debut until May 3 and miss the first 30 games of the season.

A combination of trying to make his contributions felt immediately and coming back from the injury added up to a .163 batting average over 14 games.

He landed back on the disabled list in late May after re-aggravating the same injury and returned 39 games later on July 5.

Since then, though, Souza has shown why the D-backs acquired him from the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason to be the primary option in right field following Martinez’s departure.

In the 24 games he has played since that return, Souza has reached base in 20 of those games.

Besides coming back with his full health, D-backs manager Torey Lovullo saw a change in the outfielder’s mindset.

“Allowing his natural baseball instincts to take over,” Lovullo said before Wednesday’s game of the biggest difference. “I felt like he was trying to make up for lost time and really make an impression.”

There was an adjustment period of sorts for Souza, coming into a 93-win team that was asking him to play an important role for them.

“I think it’s a natural feeling where players come on board and you join a team like this — it’s a bonded family, we had a lot of success and you want to fit in and be a piece of that puzzle,” Lovullo said.

“Then you add in the intensity of what Steven brings every single day and he just wanted it so bad. I could sense that … I just want to put him in a situation where he was reminded to be himself.”

Through some talks with Souza, Lovullo feels the 6-foot-4 slugger has found the right balance.

“It’s just about being himself and relaxing,” he said. “I think I expressed it as to put that Big Diesel in fifth gear and ride it in the [HOV] lane and see how good you can look, just being yourself. It seems to be working.”

Don’t let Souza’s .253 average on the season fool you. It is absolutely working.

In the last 30 days of the season since July 9, Souza has a team-high .338 batting average and .417 on-base percentage.

Among qualified players across the league during that period, he ranks ninth in batting average, 14th in on-base percentage and third in batting average on balls in play (BABIP), per Fangraphs.

With great hitters like David Peralta, A.J. Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt and Eduardo Escobar situationally above him in the lineup, Souza’s 15 RBI over that period and 20 on the season will surely go up if he continues hitting near this level.

Souza has been surging, playing his signature brand of aggressive, energetic baseball. That can lead to some bumps and bruises along the way, which he picked up on Tuesday night after colliding with the wall in right field when attempting to rob a home run.

That doesn’t mean any change is coming and Lovullo wants it that way.

“He plays the game as hard as anybody,” Lovullo said. “He’s gonna impact things a little bit differently than most athletes. He’s fairly graceful so when he does something you don’t know how hard he hit that wall or how hard he landed until you watch it on video. It’s just what he is and who he is on the inside.”

The manager noted that he asks for caution on plays where that recklessness isn’t needed, but like Lovullo said, that’s just who Souza is.