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Ozuna powers up, Wacha settles in as Cardinals salvage series finale against Brewers

Ozuna powers up, Wacha settles in as Cardinals salvage series finale against Brewers

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MILWAUKEE • Former Miami Marlins teammates Marcell Ozuna of the Cardinals and Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers caught up before a game in the just completed three-game set at Miller Park. “But we don’t talk about hitting,” said Ozuna, referring to two of the hottest batsmen on the planet.

“We both know what we can do,” Ozuna said. “We talk about how we’re feeling. He told me he worked for an hour before the game he hit three homers. I told him I’m OK, I’ll put my numbers up and play harder.”

So, here’s the tale of the tape:

Yelich had four homers in the first two games of the series and eight in the first six games — at least one in every game — against the Cardinals this year. But Ozuna, the best player not named Yelich in this series, hit his third homer in three games and fifth in his past four games to start the Cardinals on their way to a 6-3 win over the Brewers in the series finale Wednesday.

The Brewers had won five of the first six games of the 10 the two teams will have played by a week from now. And ... news flash ... Yelich did not have a home run as Michael Wacha (six innings), John Gant, Andrew Miller and Jordan Hicks held the Brewers to just one homer — by reliever Aaron Wilkerson.

Yelich did single home a run off Miller in the eighth, giving him 19 RBIs against the Cardinals in seven games this year and 25 in nine games over the last two seasons.

“I tip my hat to that guy,” said manager Mike Shildt.

“We’re going in phases. We just wanted to get out of the phase of him hitting a homer every game. The next phase is him not getting a hit in a game, and that’s coming.”

Matt Carpenter walloped his third homer as the Cardinals touched up starter Corbin Burnes for eight hits and five runs in 3 1/3 innings. That Burnes would allow a home run was not unusual. He has surrendered 11 in 17 2/3 innings this year.

Ozuna, who also homered in four consecutive games for Miami in 2014, has hit all eight of his homers in the Cardinals’ past 10 games. With eight homers in the Cardinals’ first 18 games, he is tied for second in Cardinals lore with Stan Musial, Mark McGwire and Scott Rolen. Albert Pujols had 10 in the first 18 games in 2006.

Before the last two weeks or so, though, Ozuna had been the social media target of the venomous tentacle of Cardinal Nation, whether it was because he got too heavy, or that his arm was shot after offseason shoulder surgery or that he didn’t have any pop in his bat anymore.

For the last of those three, there certainly can be no debate.

“I don’t really pay attention to the outside world because it doesn’t bring a lot of positives to me,” said Shildt. “But you could feel it; you could sense it. I’ve been saying it early in the season that this guy’s going to be a good player for us and he’s on the right track. People don’t like to be patient in our game. We understand it’s a result-oriented game but we also understand that there are humans playing it.

“He got back to where he can feel free with what he’s doing. He’s a special guy with a special skill set.”

Wacha said, “That guy’s a stud and he’s a force in the middle of our lineup. If people are talking bad about him, I honestly have no clue why.”

Dexter Fowler, who extended his hitting streak to seven games and who has heard his own doubters, said, relative to Ozuna, “It’s like, ‘What have you done for me lately?’”

Eight homers in his last 10 games would be the appropriate answer.

Ozuna still refuses to say he is becoming comfortable. “Not yet,” he said.

“I’m getting there. Maybe after the All-Star Game, I’ll let you know.

“Sometimes you go to the plate guessing a little bit and I try to do too much. When I feel I don’t try to do too much and I read the pitch, I can tell I’m going to be like 100 percent. Just be patient, wait for my moment ... and attack.”

Wacha allowed just five hits and two runs and fanned seven in six official innings. In his last start, Wacha wondered if he had thrown too many strikes as he gave up seven runs in 3 2/3 innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

This time, he said, “I didn’t miss over the plate too many times.”

Shildt had praise for many of his players, but, especially Wacha, who never has lost to the Brewers in six decisions and who gained his first win overall since last June 9. Wacha’s string of 12 starts against the Brewers from the beginning of his career without ever having lost to them is the longest of any pitcher.

“His work today spoke for itself,” said Shildt. “Michael Wacha was the art of pitching today. He had a great changeup today and he threw in appropriately.”

Wacha worked inside on Yelich, with one pitch up and in although Wacha said not to read anything into that. But Shildt said, “We didn’t control that part of the plate for most of this series but (Wacha) did today.”

Before the game, Shildt had lamented that his team hadn’t pitched inside effectively enough. “I can’t tell you we’re not trying,” he said. “We just haven’t been able to do it, for whatever reason. But we’re not going to throw at anybody because they’re good. I’m not going to bruise (Yelich) because the guy’s got talent. We’ve got to be better.

“That being said, we’ve got to throw inside effectively. The inside part of the plate is a territory and right now, he owns that territory ... and we haven’t been defending our territory well enough.”

When Yelich wasn’t tormenting the Cardinals, the Brewers’ pitchers had their hacks.

Brandon Woodruff doubled in each of the first two games of the series, once as a pinch hitter. And then Wilkerson’s first major league hit in seven at-bats was a two-run, two-out homer off Wacha in the fifth.

“I wasn’t too happy about it,” Wacha said.

The Cardinals’ 2-5 record in the first seven with the Brewers doesn’t sound too good, but it was better than a five-game swing in the standings at 1-6. And it was all Yelich’s fault, said Carpenter.

“If you take him out of the lineup, we win every single one of them,” Carpenter said. “As a whole we out-hit them. As a whole, we out-pitched them.

“But the one guy hit eight home runs in seven games.”

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