Marcell Ozuna tried to hit homers and slumped. Now Braves slugger is back to old approach

ATLANTA — When Marcell Ozuna began consciously swinging for the fences a couple of weeks ago, trying only to hit home runs, the homers ceased for the Atlanta Braves slugger.

Now that he’s refocused on hitting rather than trying to drive balls to the bleachers, long balls have returned for Ozuna, who had a three-run homer in the eighth inning of Friday’s 8-6 series-opening loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, and a two-run homer in the first inning of Saturday’s 5-1 Braves win at Truist Park.

Braves rookie Spencer Schwellenbach outpitched presumptive All-Star Ranger Suárez, and Ozzie Albies added a homer and three RBIs on a night when legendary former Braves manager Bobby Cox made a rare appearance at the ballpark and met the team before the game.

“He’s amazing,” Ozuna said of Cox, 83, who had been to only one other Braves game since suffering a massive stroke in April 2019. “I never met him, this is the first time, and I felt like I was shaking a little bit. I don’t know if he knows me, but it was real cool to meet one of the legends like that.”

A few hours before the game, Ozuna explained to The Athletic what he had done, and why, recently changing his approach in a failed attempt to hit more homers.

He didn’t make excuses but said he realized a couple of days ago how counterproductive it was, not just to swing for the fences but also to change the pregame regimen he’d used during an extraordinary hitting surge of nearly 200 games going back to the beginning of May 2023.

Ozuna said he didn’t do it just for selfish reasons, merely to see if he could hit 30 homers before the break. Other key hitters in the Braves lineup were injured or had struggled for much of the season, and Atlanta was falling further behind the Phillies. So, he thought he could make a difference by hitting homers even more frequently than he had since early last season. (Hey, he admits he didn’t really think this through.)

“Yeah, I was worried about winning, so I tried to be a hero,” said Ozuna, who regained the NL RBI lead with five in the past two games, raising his total to 72.

“But if you see the last month, I left a lot of runners on base with less than two outs,” he said. “Because I tried to drive them all in, instead of one. You should take one, not try for all of them. When you’re trying to get all of them, you get none.”

He’s second in the NL in homers with 23 in 87 games, after finishing with 40 homers and 100 RBIs in 144 games last season, when all but two of those homers and two of those RBIs came in 126 games after May 1.

After his dreadful April last season, Ozuna did not have a significant slump from the beginning of May 2023 until mid-June this season. Then he went 10-for-60 (.167) with one homer, five RBIs, 21 strikeouts and a .563 OPS in 17 games through Thursday.

“I was doing nothing (pregame) since the Yankees series,” said Ozuna, who stopped working in the batting cage before games, thinking it might help him be stronger in his game at-bats. “I didn’t realize I was going down, down, down. Before (Friday’s game) I realized it and said, forget about what you’re doing and get back to doing my normal work. Don’t try to do too much and just put the ball in play. That’s it.”

When he tries to hit homers, Ozuna said, “It doesn’t happen. I was too late (with the swing). I wasn’t working on my mechanics, I was working on (pitch) selection. So now I was guessing. I’d guess, ‘OK, if he’s gonna throw me that, I’m gonna kick your ass,’ and then …”

Here, Ozuna demonstrated how the pitcher would throw a different pitch than what he’d guessed, resulting in a swing-and-miss. He said before this Phillies series he realized the pursuit of homers had backfired.

Braves hitting coaches Kevin Seitzer and assistant Bobby Magallanes were glad to hear he understood it had been a mistake to change his approach and to stop doing his pregame ritual of hitting baseballs flipped to him in the indoor batting cage, then hitting balls off a pitching machine, then taking batting practice outside. He’s back to that three-step program now.

“I told Mags and Seitzer, ‘I haven’t done (it) for a while, so I’m going back to my plan,’” Ozuna said. “And then (Friday) I kept the ball in the air and didn’t strike out, so that’s a good sign. So I’m like, OK. And then the last at-bat happens.”

That was his eighth-inning plate appearance Friday against flamethrowing Phillies left-hander José Alvarado, when Ozuna hit a 98 mph sinker 409 feet the other way to right-center for a three-run homer.

“Alvarado is a good pitcher who throws hard, he’s got good stuff,” Ozuna said. “Every time I face him it’s a strikeout or roll-over groundout, or it might be off the end of the bat to somebody. Yesterday, I got him good. He made a mistake and paid.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker said: “That was a good at-bat. Because I know (Phillies starter Aaron) Nola was throwing him a lot of breaking balls, and you know you’re going to get hard (stuff) from Alvarado. So that was a big at-bat for him.”

Ozuna wasn’t trying to homer off Alvarado, and he hit one. And in his next at-bat — the first inning Saturday — he hit another. This was off the lefty Suárez, who entered with a 10-2 record, 2.27 ERA and three homers allowed in his past 10 starts.

Jarred Kelenic hit a leadoff double in the first inning and Albies had an RBI single before Suárez struck out Austin Riley and Matt Olson, each looking. In stepped Ozuna, whom Snitker had moved back to the fifth spot Friday, after hitting him third since mid-May. Riley moved back to third after batting fifth since mid-June.

Suárez threw a first-pitch curveball below the strike zone, and Ozuna scorched it 414 feet to straight center to give the Braves and Schwellenbach a 3-0 lead.

“Looked like a pretty good pitch,” Snitker said. “He went down and got it. That kind of jump-started us a little bit. And Ozzie had a really nice night.”

Schwellenbach (2-4) worked six crisp innings — 60 strikes in 81 pitches — and allowed seven hits, one run and no walks with six strikeouts.

“He had good stuff tonight,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “He pounded the zone and worked fast. His breaking ball — whatever you want to call it, some slider/slurve/curveball — was really good. Fastball played. I thought he was good. He was impressive tonight.”

It was the best of Schwellenbach’s seven MLB starts, coming as it did against the rivals and NL East leaders. Ozuna played a big part by allowing the young right-hander to relax and pitch with a lead.

“It’s always nice to pitch with the lead,” Schwellenbach said. “That’s something I’ve seen (Ozuna) do plenty since I’ve been up here. He’s a good leader. Always has a smile on his face, and when he gets an 0-for-3 day it’s not like he’s pouting in the dugout. When he goes up to bat for his fourth time, it’s like, ‘I’m not getting out again,’ and people feel that.”

Albies added a two-run homer in the fifth, the first time this season Suárez surrendered more than one homer.

Ozuna homered on consecutive pitches Friday and Saturday, driving in five runs to regain the league RBI lead and restore order after his two-week misadventure on the guess-and-swing-hard highway.

Now he was looking again like the all-around hitting machine he was from May 2, 2023, through June 15, a nearly 13 1/2-month span in which Ozuna led the majors with 58 homers and 160 RBIs, and did it while batting .308 (fifth among MLB qualifiers) with a .987 OPS that trailed only Aaron Judge (1.088), Shohei Ohtani (1.045) and Juan Soto (.988).

After three hits the past two nights — a double and two homers — Ozuna has his average back to .298 and OPS to .950.

“When you’re guessing and trying to hit homers, you’re going to strike out more, no matter what. Because you’re not trying to get a single, you’re trying to hit homers,” said Ozuna, who struck out once in the past two games. “Now I’m going back to (hitting) .300. It’s good when you see your numbers and you’re hitting .300. You’re not trying to do too much.”

He paused, smiled and said, “When you hit 40 homers and you’re hitting .180 … that’s not me.”

(Photo: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

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