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Cardinals host Pirates

Cardinals Marcell Ozuna hits a two-run double in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. Photo by Robert Cohen,

As the Cardinals find near-term answers to stay in this frantic playoff chase, they erase some long-term questions.

For instance, Marcell Ozuna looks more like the player who smacked 37 homers and drove in 124 runs for the Miami Marlins last season. A cortisone shot quieted his barking shoulder and a 10-day break restored his power.

In his first six games back from the DL, Ozuna went 12 for 26 with five homers, eight runs scored and seven RBIs. Such production lessens the need for the Cardinals to acquire additional impact batters for next season.

“I think he’s shown that for awhile now,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “If you look at his numbers prior to going on the DL, he’s put together an .860 OPS (in August). He’s looking pretty good.”

True, but he has been driving the ball with more consistency since returning.

“He looks free, he is throwing better,” Shildt said. “He is really kind of getting comfortable with his environment, getting comfortable with his role. It takes a while. Come in, feeling he has to be the guy in the middle of the lineup. Now he feels like he has to be one of the guys. I think that’s important. He feels healthy. We’re seeing a better version of Marcell.”

Ozuna 2.0 should draw some consideration for a contract extension beyond 2019. He is a prime-age offensive weapon who adds life to the clubhouse.

(Just because the Dexter Fowler contract hasn’t panned out doesn’t mean the Cardinals shouldn’t commit to Ozuna. He is 4 1/2 years younger than Fowler. Ozuna could handle left field for another six or seven years.)

Ozuna’s tag team partner Carlos Martinez has offered another revelation. Martinez earned saves in three consecutive appearances — albeit with some adventure — to give the front office more to ponder.

Injuries and inconsistency knocked him out of the rotation. His shift into a relief role was supposed to be temporary, but ...

“Carlos has taken to the bullpen the way we would have hoped,” general manager Michael Girsch noted. “He’s pitched very well. Not a big surprise. As well as he pitched as a starter in his career, he’s expected to be a very good reliever.”

Bud Norris filled in capably as the closer this season before encountering September turbulence. Rookie Jordan Hicks held up as the eighth-inning specialist all season.

But what about leaving Martinez there for next season? Although some fans would rather see the Cardinals swap him and others for another big hitter, leaving Martinez where he is could fill a big team need moving forward.

“I think he has a presence about him that works well as a closer and I think he enjoys the moment,” Girsch said. “He’s the kind of guy, rather than shrinking from it, he loves it.”

Martinez’s issues, Adam Wainwright’s chronic elbow problems, Michael Wacha’s oblique strain and Alex Reyes’ torn lat tendon forced the Cardinals move John Gant into the starting rotation and graduate prospect after prospect on an accelerated schedule.

Most of them have pitched well, which bodes well for next season. While Wainwright faces free agency and an uncertain 2019, the Cardinals expect Wacha to bounce back for his final arbitration-eligible season.

Fans point to Wacha as a trade chip but, like Martinez, his stock is at a low point. As with Martinez, the Cardinals must get mileage from Wacha next season and go from there.

Don’t forget Wacha posted an earned-run average of 3.38 or better in four of his six seasons. When healthy, he has top-of-the-rotation form.

So let’s say the Cardinals designate Martinez, Hicks and Mike Mayers as bullpen cornerstones next season, with Dominic Leone, John Brebbia and possibly Norris in support and Luke Gregerson and Brett Cecil trying again.

That would leave Wacha and Reyes coming back to join Miles Mikolas and some combination of Gant, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Luke Weaver, Daniel Poncedeleon and Austin Gomber in the starting rotation.

That is impressive depth. Could the Cardinals try to trade surplus pitching for hitting? Sure, but third base is their only question mark and they have viable options there.

Jedd Gyorko hit .277 in July and .325 in August before suffering another groin muscle strain. He is a steady fielder, too.

Kolten Wong’s strong finish at second base frees up Yairo Munoz to play third base as needed. Our old friend Matt Adams could stick around to offer left-handed clout and move Carpenter across the diamond for some starts.

Patrick Wisdom offers depth at third base and elite prospects Elehuris Montero and Nolan Gorman possess tremendous long-term potential.

Elsewhere, Harrison Bader is looking like centerfielder of the future. Jose Martinez just keeps hitting, so he could offer excellent offensive protection in right field in case Fowler can’t find his reset button.

This late Cardinals push will allow management to move forward from a position of strength. Bill DeWitt Jr., John Mozeliak and Girsch will have more MLB-ready assets to leverage but less motivation to shake things up.

Jeff Gordon • 314-340-8175

@gordoszone on Twitter


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