ST. LOUIS -- It was the Washington Nationals vs. Marcell Ozuna on Monday night, and Ozuna won the battle.
The left fielder drove in all four of the Cardinals’ runs in their 4-2 victory over the Nationals and gave St. Louis a crucial series-opening win on Monday night at Busch Stadium.
Going into the game, Ozuna was hitting just .112 with three home runs in his last 17 games, but he was a career .317 hitter with two home runs against Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg.
Those career numbers trumped his recent numbers in the bottom of the first inning, when he launched a two-run shot 412 feet to center field. And with the score tied at 2 in the seventh inning, Ozuna lined a go-ahead two-run ground-rule double down the left-field line.
“[I was] overthinking, trying to do too much," Ozuna said. "Today I said, ‘Let’s go, get a good pitch to hit, swing and don’t be afraid.’”
Ozuna kept the Cardinals on top of the National League Central, two games ahead of the Cubs, who defeated the Reds on Monday night. The win was key, starting the pivotal series off on the right foot ahead of their four-game weekend series at Wrigley Field against the Cubs.
But Ozuna’s bat isn’t what generated the most pride from him or from manager Mike Shildt.
“My throw,” Ozuna said. “I felt amazing about that.”
In the top of the fourth inning, starter Dakota Hudson -- who allowed two runs in seven innings -- walked Juan Soto and gave up two singles to load the bases. Victor Robles lined a single to Ozuna, who fired the ball home to nab Asdrubal Cabrera trying to score from second. That limited the Nationals to one run, which was critical after Anthony Rendon tied the score in the sixth with his first career home run at Busch Stadium, a solo shot to center field.
“I’m obviously pleased with the homer and two-run double, but the throw -- he’s put a lot of time, energy, effort into working on getting his arm back,” Shildt said.
After trading for Ozuna after the 2017 season, the Cardinals are finally seeing the full player that they thought they would get. A shoulder injury limited him last season; he underwent surgery in the offseason. Since then, Shildt said, Ozuna has slowly gotten the strength back in his arm and has recovered well from his monthlong stint on the injured list with fractured fingers.
“He was very sincere about A., getting the surgery and B., taking a serious recovery from it,” Shildt said. “Doing his rehab and then the whole Spring Training and all year continuing that. He had a setback with his [fractured fingers] that kept him from being able to throw, so he had to re-invest and get it stretched out again. It’s good to see it pay off. He’s sincere about being a complete player.”
That complete player has been and will be a key part of the Cardinals as they eye the postseason. When he’s swinging the bat the way he did on Monday night, he provides a looming presence in the lineup behind Paul Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt (89) and Ozuna (86) lead the Cardinals in RBIs; Ozuna's 28 homers trail only Goldschmidt's 31.
“He’s more than capable of taking off,” Shildt said. “He’s done it. He’s dangerous. ... When he’s patient, letting the ball come to him, still staying aggressive with that unbelievable quick swing, that’s a great at-bat. He’s capable of putting together a lot of great at-bats, and that’d obviously really be good for us.”
Patience is key for Ozuna, both at the plate and with his arm in left field. The patience he’s had with both, and the patience that the Cardinals have had with him, is paying off. He’s hoping that it continues into the next two weeks and into October -- a month of baseball he has yet to experience, considering his career started in Miami and he came to the Cardinals during their three-year postseason hiatus.
“It would mean a lot to me [to get to the postseason], because I always watched it from my house,” Ozuna said. “We really connect, all my teammates, and we play together to get in that spot. I’ve never been there, and I want to be there for sure.”