ST. LOUIS -- While so much around him had been changing, Marcell Ozuna remained static -- both in production and placement. That changed this week, however, when interim manager Mike Shildt decided the time was right for Ozuna to relinquish his hold on the cleanup spot and bat fifth.Ozuna responded
ST. LOUIS -- While so much around him had been changing, Marcell Ozuna remained static -- both in production and placement. That changed this week, however, when interim manager Mike Shildt decided the time was right for Ozuna to relinquish his hold on the cleanup spot and bat fifth.
Ozuna responded to the move with two hits on Friday and another three Saturday afternoon, including a first-inning grand slam that set the Cardinals on cruise control for a 6-2 win over the Cubs in front of the largest crowd of the season -- 47,514 -- at Busch Stadium.
"Fun swing," Shildt said. "He got a pitch he could handle and really just drilled it."
The seven-pitch slam off Cubs lefty Jose Quintana snapped a 35-game homerless streak for the left fielder and capped an at-bat with the sort of deep drive the Cards had expected more of when they acquired him to be their cleanup hitter. Instead, the Cardinals had gotten mostly a succession of singles.
Since homering on June 16, Ozuna had tallied just four extra-base hits (all doubles). He still maintains the team lead in hits (now at 105), but he also ranks among the Majors' top five with 83 singles. It was those back-breaking hits -- the bases-clearing ones -- that had eluded Ozuna.
"Just the timing," Ozuna said, when asked about his power drought. "I think the timing has been a struggle this season. Sometimes I would move forward for a few days and then come back . At the same time, I just keep grinding."
There have been signs that a breakthrough was coming, which is part of the message Shildt delivered to Ozuna when informing him that he'd be moving down in the order.
Ozuna entered the day with the league's second-largest discrepancy between expected slugging percentage (.479) and actual slugging percentage (.372). He also boasted the Majors' second highest average exit velocity on home runs (108.8 mph) and he was tied for fifth in the NL for most hard-hit balls (134), according to Statcast™. What he lacked too often was loft.
"If you look at the at-bats, he's getting the ball up off the ground a little bit more and getting it up in the air," Shildt said. "He feels a little more consistent about what he feels his swing is going to be."
All of those elements came together for Ozuna to deliver Saturday's knockout punch. With the count full, he crushed a curveball 434 feet into the seats in left-center for his fifth career grand slam and second this season.
The blast followed a pair of singles and two walks issued by Quintana, who struggled through a 51-pitch first inning. It ended with the Cardinals ahead by six, making it their most productive inning this season. The offense drew three walks and tallied four hits in the frame.
"For us, it's just about passing the baton, making the guy work in the first inning through 40-something pitches," said three-hole hitter Paul DeJong. "The long ball is nice, but I think we're winning games lately because we're really putting the pressure on throughout the lineup."
All-Star Miles Mikolas held that first-inning lead with his team-best 14th quality start. Javier Baez snapped Mikolas' run of 41 consecutive innings without allowing a homer, but the Cubs otherwise advanced just one runner into scoring position. Mikolas induced 18 ground-ball outs.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Summoned to St. Louis as part of a wave of transactions on Friday, Dakota Hudson threw a scoreless seventh while making his Major League debut on Saturday. He worked back from a 3-1 count against Kyle Schwarber to secure his first strikeout. Ian Happ went down swinging next. Hudson, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the organization's No. 4 prospect, threw 13 pitches in the 1-2-3 inning.
"It was awesome," Hudson said afterward. "I was jogging in from the bullpen and had an ovation, it felt like. That itself was, like, a huge moment. And then once I got the first strike, I felt like I was able to settle in a little bit there."
Before Saturday, the last time the Cardinals scored six or more runs on the Cubs in the first inning was when they scored 11 on Aug. 7, 1998. Steve Trachsel was knocked for nine runs in one-third of an inning in the Cardinals' 16-3 win.
HE SAID IT
"This is when we have to turn it around. This is when we have to start winning games. No one better to take the games from than the Cubs, especially with all the changes that just got made. For us to come out with a couple fresh faces and a new team and kind of stick it to them, it feels real good." -- Mikolas, on the club's consecutive wins over the Cubs
The Cardinals will send John Gant to the mound on Sunday with a chance to sweep the Cubs in a series at Busch Stadium for the second time this season. Gant, who held the Cubs scoreless over five innings on July 21, will make the start against right-hander Kyle Hendricks. First pitch for the nationally-televised game is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. CT.
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.