Marcell Ozuna’s return ensures Braves remain serious title contender

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ATLANTA — Now that he’s locked in to the Atlanta Braves, Marcell Ozuna couldn’t resist a good-natured poke at general manager Alex Anthopoulos.

“Alex, I have a question for you,” Ozuma said to Anthopoulos as the two took part in a Zoom call Saturday. “Why didn’t you sign me at the end of the season?”‘

Instead, the Braves waited until a couple of weeks before the start of spring training to reach a four-year, $65 million deal with a slugger who just missed out on the National League’s Triple Crown during the abbreviated 2020 season.

The return of Ozuna ensures the Braves, who have won three straight NL East titles, will remain one of the top championship contenders heading into a new season.

They came up one win short of the World Series a year ago, losing to the eventual champion Los Angeles Dodgers in a seven-game NL Championship Series after squandering a 3-1 lead.

Now, having bolstered their rotation with the free-agent signings of Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, they’ve ensured their potent lineup returns largely intact in 2021.

“We have a really good club,” Anthopoulos said. “We have a World Series-caliber club. We need things to break right and so on, but everybody on the roster believes we’re capable of winning the World Series.”

The Braves knew they wanted to bring back Ozuna – who led the NL with 18 homers and 56 RBIs and finished third in batting average at .338 – but they were slow to make their move after quickly signing Morton and Smyly to one-year deals at the start of free agency.

Just a few days before the deal with the Braves was finalized Friday, Ozuna expected to playing elsewhere in 2021. He had an offer from the Tampa Bay Rays, but held out for something better.

Finally, the Braves jumped into the mix.

It took only one day to reach an agreement.

“We didn’t talk contract until a day or two ago,” Anthopoulos said. “It was done real quick.”

Ozuna, never shy about speaking his mind, jumped in to ask why the deal wasn’t done earlier. It was all in good fun, but Anthopoulos said it took a while to sort out payroll considerations heading into another season that will surely be impacted of the coronavirus pandemic.

“At the beginning of the offseason, there was a lot of uncertainty from a team payroll standpoint and an industry standpoint,” he said. “When guys get to free agency, it takes time.”

Th Braves also had to consider whether the designated hitter would return in the NL for another season. Ozuna thrived in 2020 while serving mostly as the DH. For now, that one-year experiment is off the table after the players rejected a proposal to delay the start of the regular season.

Unless there’s a change of course, Ozuna will start for the Braves in left field, where his defensive limitations will surely be in the spotlight.

Anthopoulos danced around that issue when asked if there were any concerns about Ozuna holding down a full-time defensive role.

“We feel like when Marcell is in left field, he’s solid,” the GM said. “He’s worked hard with all our coaches so he can continue to be a great player offensively, defensively and running the bases.”

While Ozuna’s defense could be an issue, there is no question about his impact on the Braves’ offense.

Batting behind Freddie Freeman, Ozuna was a major reason why the Atlanta first baseman captured the NL MVP award.

If Ozuna had gone elsewhere, the Braves would have been left with a huge hole to fill. Now, they return a lineup that features four players who reached double-figure homers in the 60-game season and scored just one less run than the major league-leading Dodgers.

But Ozuna’s impact goes beyond his impressive numbers. He quickly became one of the most popular players in the Braves clubhouse, adding even more fire to a young, confident team with his various celebrations.

From his “mix it up” mantra to posing for a “selfie” on the basepaths after hitting a playoff homer, Ozuna’s flair was apparent almost every time out.

After initially signing Ozuna to an $18 million, one-year deal, the Braves were willing to go long term to keep the 30-year-old in Atlanta.

“We needed that season to feel comfortable about giving him this type of contract,” Anthopoulos said. “Where we are as a team, where he is in his career, where we are with our core, he fits really well.”

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.