Cloudy
74.5 ° F
Full Weather
Sponsored By:

‘Big Bear’ on the prowl. Braves’ Marcell Ozuna heading for another big year

Sponsored by:

ATLANTA (AP) — Marcell Ozuna shrugged off the chants of “MVP! MVP! MVP!”

The Atlanta Braves slugger knows, better than most, how fleeting the good times can be.

“You have to be at the same level,” Ozuna said, “so you don’t get comfortable.”

Only a year ago, his career was hanging by a thread. The same fans who cheer him now were booing lustily every time he stepped to the plate. It seemed just a matter of time before he was sent packing by the Braves.

But the team stuck with him, and Ozuna is again one of baseball’s most feared hitters. He went deep twice Wednesday night, leading Atlanta to a 5-0 victory over the Boston Red Sox and passing Shohei Ohtani for the MLB’s home run lead with 12.

The burly DH nicknamed “Big Bear” also awoke Thursday leading the big leagues with 38 RBIs — five more than anyone else — and ranked second to Ohtani in both slugging percentage (.646) and OPS (1.042). For good measure, he was among top 20 in hitting with a .315 average.

“I’ve got so much respect for that man,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “The baseball gods have a way of rewarding people like that.”

To appreciate how far the 33-year-old Ozuna has come, it’s imperative to look at where he was after the first month of the 2023 season.

He was hitting .085 with two RBIs, which had the pundits howling for the Braves to eat the remainder of the four-year, $65 contract he signed before the ‘21 campaign. Ozuna also was hounded by off-the-field issues — arrests for domestic violence and drunken driving roughly 15 months apart — that provided further cause for the team to move on.

But Snitker was impressed by Ozuna’s demeanor around his teammates, even when things looked so bleak.

He remained one of the most popular, upbeat figures in the clubhouse, supporting those around him and keeping everyone smiling with his endless antics. The work ethic never wavered, either. Ozuna just kept plugging away, confident in his routine and optimistic that his numbers would eventually improve.

“A lot of people a year ago were saying it’s time to get rid of that guy,” Snitker said. “I remembered him for who he is. I remembered who the real Marcell Ozuna is.”

Ozuna apologized for his mistakes, served a 20-game suspension and completed a diversion program that resulted in the domestic violence charges being dropped.

On the field, he never lost faith in his abilities — even at his lowest.

He remembered the advice that Juan Pierre doled out when Ozuna first arrived in the big leagues with the Miami Marlins in 2013.

“I was hitting real good,” Ozuna said. “But he says, ‘One of these days, (you’ll go) 0 for 4 and then you will see, Papi. Nobody will see you.’”

He’s sure hard to miss these days.

The Braves’ faith in Ozuna was rewarded with a stunning turnaround that began roughly a year ago, after the calendar flipped from April to May. He posted 40 homers and 100 RBIs last season, becoming a vital cog in a fearsome Atlanta lineup that tied the major league record for homers in a season (307).

Ozuna is on pace for even loftier numbers this season and emerging as Ohtani’s most prominent challenger in the NL MVP race. The cumulative numbers since the start of the previous May are downright staggering: 50 homers, 136 RBIs and a .301 average.

Chris Sale, who went six scoreless innings in Atlanta’s latest win, loves watching Ozuna at the plate. But the pitcher is just as impressed by what he sees when no one is around.

“He’s got like a magnetic field around him,” said Sale, who is in his first season with the Braves. “You just wanna be around him. He’s a fun guy to play with. He keeps the energy up in the clubhouse, in the dugout, on the bus, on the plane.”

Sale has been through plenty of ups and downs in his career. That makes him even more appreciative of the way Ozuna dealt with all that adversity.

“He went through some struggles,” Sale said. “For him to be able to put all that aside and grind it out, be where he finished last year and then pick up right where he left off, that says a lot about him, who he is as a person, as much as it says who he is as a baseball player.”

___

AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb

By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Writer

Feedback