ST. LOUIS -- Advertised as the big bat the Cardinals needed to fortify the middle of their lineup, Marcell Ozuna spent much of the season's first half searching -- for his fit, his health and a little more lift under his swing.Ozuna's pursuit for sustained consistency continues, but flashes of
ST. LOUIS -- Advertised as the big bat the Cardinals needed to fortify the middle of their lineup, Marcell Ozuna spent much of the season's first half searching -- for his fit, his health and a little more lift under his swing.
Ozuna's pursuit for sustained consistency continues, but flashes of his potential impact have also become more frequent. Even with an uncooperative shoulder, Ozuna nudged St. Louis ahead early with a two-run double that served as a springboard for an 11-5 win over the Pirates at Busch Stadium on Tuesday.
To contribute in a September pennant race is new and welcomed territory for the former Marlins slugger.
"I've never been in that spot before," Ozuna said. "Every at-bat, I go trying to push my team on top."
Miles Mikolas backed the early support with seven strong innings and Tyler O'Neill, with a late three-run homer, put an exclamation mark on a victory that padded the Cardinals' Wild Card position.
With the Dodgers losing to the Reds, St. Louis holds a three-game lead for the second spot in the National League Wild Card race. The Cardinals trail the Brewers by 1 1/2 games for the top Wild Card spot and are 3 1/2 games back of the Cubs in the NL Central.
"This is crunch time," said Mikolas, the first pitcher to win 15 games in his first season with the Cardinals since Mark Mulder in 2005. "This is time to kind of dig deep, and all that offseason work, all that training, everything, all the running in-season, it's time to ... leave it all out there and use everything you've got."
Ozuna's two-run double in the first inning was the last hit St. Louis would get off Pirates starter Joe Musgrove until Matt Carpenter opened the sixth inning with a single. Then, the floodgates opened.
The Pirates helped with three wild pitches and an error, but the Cardinals also rode momentum generated by the top of the lineup. St. Louis' top three spots in the order combined to reach base 10 times and score six runs. Behind them, Ozuna secured his first three-RBI game since July 28.
"He'd been hot before we came in here," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "And he's stayed hot while we've been here."
Nevertheless, roadblocks still exist for the first-year Cardinal. Though Ozuna's shoulder has improved since he targeted inflammation with a cortisone shot during a recent 10-day shutdown, that area remains a nuisance. And he's still trying to recover a swing that had eroded amid the pain.
"I'm not chasing so much as I was before," Ozuna said. "The reason was my arm wasn't in the right spot. When my arm is good, I can stay inside and make a good swing. I'm getting in a good spot to hit."
The results indicate as much. Ozuna is slashing .342/.350/.763 with a 1.113 OPS since coming off the disabled list. He has tallied seven go-ahead or game-winning RBIs during that stretch and is riding a six-game hitting streak.
"I would say that he was a little more compromised than maybe we realized," manager Mike Shildt said. "I think he obviously feels a little more consistently better with his health."
A strong finish was also on the mind of the organization when the Cardinals reworked the rotation to provide their starters an extra day of rest during this 13-day stretch without an off day. Mikolas was the latest beneficiary of that approach. His win on Tuesday was the first in five tries against the Pirates this season.
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Norris bounces back:Bud Norris' efforts to get back on track for the team's stretch run took an encouraging turn on Tuesday, as he retired all three batters he faced while holding a four-run lead in the eighth. Norris threw eight of his 11 pitches for strikes and struck out one. The lone concern was that he once again felt some discomfort around his right hip, which has nagged at him for weeks.
"Like a lot of guys, he's fighting some lower-half things," Shildt said. "But he said he's fine. He pitched through it with no problem, and I thought he was really good tonight."
This outing against the Pirates came on the heels of three straight troublesome performances that cost Norris his role as closer. In each of those, Norris surrendered the go-ahead run in the opponents' final at-bat.
With his two runs scored on Tuesday, Carpenter passed Jose Pujols for the most (313) in the history of the current Busch Stadium. Carpenter has also scored in eight straight games against the Pirates, the longest active streak by a player against that club and the longest by a Cardinal since 2002, when Pujols scored in 10 consecutive games.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
With two on and one out in the eighth, O'Neill crushed a 3-0 fastball a projected 457 feet, according to Statcast™, into the left-center-field seats for his eighth home run. It was the longest hit by a Cardinal at Busch Stadium since Statcast™ tracking was introduced in 2015, and at 113.1 mph off the bat, O'Neill's blast registered the fourth-highest home run exit velocity by a Cardinals player during the same timespan.
HE SAID IT
"I had had some frustrating outings where I think guys were putting the ball in play. … You don't like to use the term unlucky, but that's kind of how I felt. For me to get a nice clean seven innings and finish the game strong [was nice]." -- Mikolas
The Cardinals will close their season series against the Pirates with a 12:15 p.m. CT game at Busch Stadium on Wednesday. Daniel Poncedeleon (0-1, 2.67 ERA) will slide back into the rotation for a spot start, his fourth this season. Poncedeleon, who has never faced Pittsburgh, will be opposed by Jameson Taillon (12-9, 3.40). The Cardinals anticipate activating infielder Jedd Gyorko from the disabled list before the game.
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.