SAN DIEGO — It took a late-night phone call and one early-morning flight Saturday for the Cardinals to recall a replacement for Marcell Ozuna on the active roster.
Finding a way to cover for his absent offense will take longer.
The Cardinals placed Ozuna on the injured list Saturday afternoon with several small fractures in his right hand, all at the base of his middle finger, and brought back slugger Tyler O’Neill from Class AAA Memphis on the first flight west. In an unrelated move made later in the day that also fortifies the outfield, the Cardinals also recalled outfielder Lane Thomas and placed reliever John Brebbia on the paternity list.
Ozuna will meet with a hand specialist in St. Louis early this week, but the Cardinals expect him to miss at least three weeks while the hand heals, and that leaves a wheezing offense with a gaping hole at cleanup.
Ozuna meant “a lot to our lineup,” manager Mike Shildt said. “He’s a presence. People had to game plan for him. He did his damage when he homered, but he also makes guys around him better. We’ll figure out a way to move forward and be able to score runs. How can we create more opportunities? Try to create a lineup that is going to click.”
The first draft Shildt turned to Saturday had O’Neill starting in left and batting fifth. The most substantive change was moving Paul Goldschmidt, the six-time All-Star, into Ozuna’s cleanup spot. Goldschmidt last hit cleanup in September for Arizona.
That led to a complete rewrite of the top of the order with rookie Tommy Edman back for a third consecutive day at leadoff and Jose Martinez sliding into Goldschmidt’s usual spot at No. 2. O’Neill, who had three homers in his past six games for the Triple-A Redbirds, could also factor into the decision at cleanup, and Shildt said Matt Carpenter will return to the lineup Sunday, though it doesn’t appear likely that will be at leadoff.
Ozuna’s injury, which he sustained diving back into first base to avoid a pickoff tag in the third inning Friday night, was the impetus for the changes to the lineup, but Shildt hasn’t hid his wish to do something, anything to spur the offense. The Cardinals had scored one run in the previous 25 innings before the start of Saturday’s game, and that run was driven home by pitcher Michael Wacha.
“Pretty fluid. Pretty fluid,” Shildt said of his cleanup plans. “We want to have continuity. We think continuity is great. But we need production. We need to figure out who is going to get us some production, and that will create some more opportunity.”
Ozuna has been the Cardinals’ most consistent and impactful hitter. He leads the team with 20 homers and 62 RBIs, and he was a candidate to be the Cardinals’ representative at the All-Star Game. He had recently expressed an interest to the team about participating in the Home Run Derby. Scans taken of Ozuna’s right hand in San Diego revealed the cracking of bones at the base of his middle and ring fingers, where, Shildt described, two small bones come together. Ozuna still had swelling in the area Saturday and lacked grip strength.
He will return to St. Louis on Sunday, and meetings with the hand specialist will determine if surgery is necessary to aid healing. Shildt said the initial prognosis does not call for surgery.
“We’re going to miss him,” Shildt said.
Brebbia left San Diego on Saturday to travel to Atlanta so that he could be present when his wife gives birth to their first. Players are granted three days on paternity leave, though Shildt did not expect the righthanded reliever to rejoin the team in Seattle. It’s more likely that he finds them next weekend in San Francisco for the final series before the All-Star break.
Thomas, 23, was expected to arrive by game-time Saturday.
O’Neill, 24, has bounced between Memphis and the majors for the past 12 months. He has 12 homers for Memphis this season — and the power has come in surges. Two weeks ago he felt a tug in his hamstring during a cold night vs. Salt Lake City, and as a precautionary move the Cardinals placed him on the seven-day injured list. He was able to use that time to hit in the cage, to stand in while teammates through bullpens, and to take rounds of live batting practice of pitchers. That put distance between him and a funk that had seen his average slide from .316 to .231 in a flurry of strikeouts and his slugging percentage sink from .754 to .481.
“Maybe if you’re slumping a little bit getting a day or two off — it’s helped me in the past,” O’Neill said.
In his return to the lineup, O’Neill had three consecutive two-hit games. He struck out three times Friday and has 10 in the past five games. That’s both part of his profile as a slugger and what he continues to work on to stick in the majors. The next step for him isn’t showing power — “He can hit it out of any park,” Shildt said — it’s showing pitch recognition to remain in control of counts big-league pitchers have consistently taken away from him.
The recent upswing at Memphis had lifted his average to .261 for the Redbirds and got his OPS to a more robust .840. Not quite yet at the 1.078 OPS he had with 26 homers for Memphis a year ago.
“I’ve got some numbers down there that I want to improve on,” O’Neill said Saturday in the Petco Park visitors’ dugout. “But hopefully I don’t get that opportunity any time soon. Stay up here for a little bit and see what happens.”
With a mix of interest and questions — so, so many questions — several of the Cardinals watched Saturday as the Yankees and Red Sox scored 30 combined runs in London and took nearly 5 hours to play the first major-league game in Europe. The jubilee of offense included six home runs, four half innings of six runs, and 37 hits combined, including four from St. Louis native and Yankees bopper Luke Voit.
The Cardinals will host the Cubs at the same facility a year from now in Major League Baseball’s London Series, and that prompted conversations Saturday about how the field played (fast), how the field looked (so much foul territory), and of course the travel.
“Looks like everything was well-received,” Shildt said.
The Cardinals and Cubs will have at least one full day before their two-game series in London and an off day after it. The games will be June 13-14 at London Stadium, the same Olympic facility that hosted this weekend’s American League games and home of West Ham. In interleague play next season, the Cardinals draw the American League East and an early version of the schedule has the Cardinals visiting Toronto, meaning they’ll play at least one regular season series in three different countries in 2020.
THE EDMAN SHIFT
With Tommy Edman starting at third base the past three games, the Cardinals have altered how they handle infield shifts. Rather than move the third baseman to the right side of second — as they do with former second baseman Matt Carpenter — Edman slides over to shortstop and Paul DeJong slides to the right of second base.
The Edman-look to the shift paid off Friday as he went to his left, into the grass, gloved a grounder, and was able to throw the runner out at first.
The reason for the change is Edman’s experience and comfort as a shortstop, the position he’s played for Class AAA Memphis.
“So, it’s more about him being in an area that’s comfortable for him,” Shildt said. “Paulie has been on the other side. He’s used to doing it in that position, so it made more sense.”
The Cardinals signed Shane Benes, a former SLU and Mizzou player, to a minor-league contract and expect to assign the undrafted free agent to rookie-level State College. Born in San Diego and raised in St. Louis, Benes is former Cardinals pitcher Andy Benes’ son. … Before Saturday’s game, the Padres brought back reliever Robert Stock to the major-league bullpen. The Cardinals’ selected Stock in the second round of the 2009 draft — as a catcher. He was part of a young group of prospects that would include Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, and ultimately he would join them as a pitcher, converting to pitcher in 2012 with the Cardinals’ Low-A affiliate. He was released by the Cardinals in 2014.