Ozuna turning rocky start into historic month

April 27th, 2019

ST. LOUIS -- Perhaps it’s all a coincidence, but the turnaround to 's tumultuous start to the season traces back to, of all things, the moment he faceplanted on the outfield warning track.

That April 9 mishap, one sure to have a long life on the blooper reel, came at a time when Ozuna was still struggling to gain traction at the plate. His .211/.250/.395 slash line was especially glaring given his placement in the cleanup spot.

But manager Mike Shildt stuck with him there, and Ozuna found a way to laugh off his defensive gaffe, and use it as a springboard for a fresh start. He’s been one of the National League’s top hitters since then, and he carried the Cardinals to a 6-3 win over the Reds on Saturday at Busch Stadium with another home run and five more RBIs.

“Really, the story was Ozuna,” Reds manager David Bell acknowledged afterward. “That was, really, the difference.”

Ozuna wiped away the Reds’ two-run lead with a three-run blast off starter Tyler Mahle in the third inning. Two innings later, he stung a two-run double, making Ozuna the first Cardinals player since Carlos Beltran in 2012 to tally five RBIs in the first five innings of a game.

Ozuna has now hit eight of his 10 home runs since April 10, and he’s driven in 21 runs during that 51 at-bat stretch. His 10 homers in the first month of the season ranks third most in franchise history, behind only Albert Pujols (14 in 2006) and Mark McGwire (11 in 1998).

“He’s a really, really good player with a lot of different, special skill sets,” Shildt said. “Now, thankfully for him and us, he’s in a place where he can use his skills.”

The foundation for Ozuna’s surge can be found in the quality of his contact. Over the first 11 games of the season, Ozuna, typically a staple near the top of exit velocity rankings, found himself 119th in the Majors (min. 20 plate appearances) with a mark of 88.6 mph.

His average exit velocity since April 10, however, has registered at 94.5 mph, 10th best in the Majors. On Saturday, he put three balls in play, including the double and home run, with a speed off the bat greater than 100 mph.

“That’s what I tried to emphasize -- hit the ball harder every time,” Ozuna said. “You never know. If you hit the ball harder, something good can happen.”

Wanting to hit the ball hard is one thing. Being in position to do so is another, and it’s come by way of improved health. Compromised by shoulder issues last season, and still recovering from shoulder surgery this spring, Ozuna had to wade through timing troubles during the early days of the season.

He also began the year still nursing some soreness in his side after being plunked by a pitch in one of the team’s final spring games.

“Getting the feeling back on getting through the ball, and getting comfortable again with that, that usually takes some level of time,” Shildt said. “But it didn’t take long.”

As he healed, Ozuna also cued up some old video of swings he took during a career-year in 2017. He said he plans to keep what he found “a secret,” but whatever it was, he seems to have unlocked something useful.

Ozuna has tallied 13 games with multiple RBIs and eight multi-hit games, and his numbers are already trending better than they were during the first month of that 2017 campaign. He ended that April with a .534 slugging percentage and .891 OPS. He’s at .663 and 1.019, respectively, after his standout Saturday.

“I just see it, stay back and swing my bat,” Ozuna said. “I don’t know if [the pitcher] is throwing away, if he’s throwing inside, if he’s throwing a heater, a breaking ball. I don’t know. I’m just following the ball and making good contact. If I can hit the ball, I’m swinging at it.”