WASHINGTON • Cardinals reliever John Brebbia “wouldn’t call it a divot,” so maybe it’s a nook or a cranny, but there is definitely a corner in left field at Nationals Park where the wall juts back a foot or so to create room for the visitors’ bullpen gate. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna went into that little extra room late Wednesday night, tracking a fly ball with his eyes and tracing the wall with his right hand.
A couple of feet to his right and the ball goes over the wall. A couple of feet above his left hand and the ball leaves the park.
A couple of extra feet and the game was tied.
In the nook, cranny or corner – but not divot – Ozuna caught a long fly ball from Michael Taylor to end the sixth inning and secure what became a 5-1 victory against Washington on Wednesday. Ozuna reached base four times, had three hits, scored two runs, and provided one early RBI against Max Scherzer as the Cardinals surgically, methodically, almost predictably picked apart their hosts.
The Cardinals capitalized on two misplays in the first inning for three runs, and an error in the eighth allowed them to extend their lead. Those ever-cagey Cardinals – give them an opening and they’ll take an inning, give them extra out and they’ll conjure a rally. Give them an extra inch and they’ll make the catch that takes the game.
“Without that extra little space there we’re watching Ozo on ESPN’s Sportscenter because he’s going to leap up and make the catch over the wall as a highlight or climb it for the catch,” said Brebbia, who pitched the final two innings. “One way or the other we’re enjoying watching Ozo make that catch.”
“It was close,” Ozuna said.
After two days of rallying to take a lead from the Nationals, the Cardinals showed how they could hold one. They won their fifth consecutive game, assured they would win their fourth consecutive series, and fortified the league’s best record with their 11th win in 12 games. They became the 10th Cardinals team in history – and second since 1982 – to win 20 in their first 30 games.
They’ve done it by exhausting the adjectives. Their lineup has proven versatile, deep, relentless, unflappable, and, most of all, opportunistic.
“All of those apply,” manager Mike Shildt said. “We can compete and score in a number of different ways. We think about our offense – we think about it just like that.”
On Monday, a two-out walk with no one on base blossomed into a five-run jag that won that game against the Nats. Less than 24 hours later, two walks and a two-out bunt spurred the decisive rally. On Wednesday, a lineup switch right before the game proved the seam the Cardinals would get to open up an early lead. Shortly before first pitch, Washington scratched left fielder Juan Soto from the lineup due to back spasms. Rather than sub outfielder Taylor into Soto’s spot in left, the Nats shuffled all three positions to put Taylor, the superior fielder, in center. That relocated usual right fielder Adam Eaton to left, everyday center fielder Victor Robles to right, and had the two regulars still in the lineup not in their regular positions.
Didn’t take long for it to come up costly.
After back-to-back singles, including one from Paul DeJong to extend his hitting streak to 11 games, Ozuna lifted a fly ball to right field. Robles took a curious route to the ball and arrived late – diving for it, missing it, and then chasing it. Ozuna was awarded a double and an RBI as a result of Robles’ misplay.
The mistake compounded on the Nats because it put Ozuna at second base. That meant he was rumbling toward third as rookie shortstop Carter Kieboom tried to make a play on Jose Martinez’s sharp grounder. Kieboom moved to avoid Ozuna first, and that interrupted his route to the grounder.
Martinez’s hit slipped by for a two-run single.
Instead of two outs, Scherzer trailed 3-0.
“Our offense just feeds off each other,” starter Miles Mikolas said. “They see one guy get a hit and they want to one-up them. Paul gets a single, Ozuna hits a double, and here comes Café (Martinez) – boom! Single to right. They feed off each other. They really know how to rally and get a pitcher on the run.”
The Cardinals had never scored that many in the first inning against Scherzer (1-4), not in his previous nine starts against them. All three runs were earned, but not deserved. Ozuna called Scherzer “one of the aces of the National League” and explained how “if we get to him early we can beat him.” They wouldn’t get any more against the Parkway Central grad and Mizzou All-American in his seven innings. Ozuna’s leadoff double in the fourth and Bader’s leadoff double in the seventh yielded nothing against Scherzer. In his final inning of work, Scherzer overpowered Paul Goldschmidt with a 97-mph fastball for the strikeout that turned the inning. The Cardinals added two runs later when Yadier Molina’s single and an error by Kieboom created a rally.
Mikolas (3-2) went “toe to toe” with Scherzer, Shildt described, despite not having a deft feel for his fastball. He leaned instead on his curveball and Molina’s ability to smother any in the dirt. Mikolas struck out four and allowed a season-low one run while dancing around seven hits. With the bases loaded in the fourth, Taylor lined out to center to end that inning. In the sixth, trailing by two runs, Taylor came up as the tying run. He tagged a high, deep drive to left field – and Brebbia and the other relievers watched as Ozuna found the extra space in left to catch it. Mikolas wanted to get the pitch higher in the zone “but after seeing it come up short I guess I got it just high enough.”
Just enough. Just like the offense. Just like the team.
Find an opening. Exploit it.
“That’s how the game works. It’s a game of inches or feet,” Shildt said. “Take advantage of every opportunity that is out there. If you’re always on point. We’ve done it a lot of different ways. We’ve had two outs, nobody on, and scored runs multiple times. We just compete. We’re looking to compete in any and all situations. And that’s what it looks like.”