MIAMI (AP) — A year ago Marcell Ozuna was a newly demoted minor leaguer, sent to Triple-A following a 1-for-36 slump that erased his perpetual smile and magnified doubts about his future with the Miami Marlins.
All of which makes his first All-Star Game that much more momentous for Ozuna, who will start in center field Tuesday for the National League.
The smile is back as he reflects on his journey of the past 12 months.
“I dreamed of being an All-Star,” he said. “But a starter in one year? It’s impossible.”
Ozuna was promoted to the starting lineup because of injuries to other players, but his statistics are All-Star worthy, thanks in part from the mentoring of first-year Marlins batting coach Barry Bonds. Ozuna is hitting .307 with 17 homers and 47 RBIs, and ranks among NL leaders with 99 hits and five triples.
As for defense, to underscore his excellent play in center field, Ozuna threw out the Reds’ Brandon Phillips on the bases on both Saturday and Sunday.
“Ozo is unbelievable,” teammate Giancarlo Stanton said. “It’s what I’ve seen over the years — you got spurts of it. But it’s a matter of being able to lock that in day in and day out, which he has been doing. It’s only the beginning for him.”
But in early July 2015, Ozuna was literally headed the wrong way — to Triple-A New Orleans. An 0-for-3 performance at Wrigley Field, dropping his average to .249, sealed the Marlins’ decision to demote him midway through his third major league season.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” president of baseball operations Michael Hill said. “He had been having a rough stretch, and in that particular game he just looked overmatched. They were bad at-bats.
“I’ve seen him since he was 16, and it was the first time I had ever seen him hang his head. We spoke after the game, and I was like, ‘Ozo, what’s up?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ He had no answers. He was completely lost. That was when we decided it was in his best interests to send him down. It’s hard when you don’t see Marcell Ozuna with a big smile; that’s who he is.”
Ozuna spent six weeks with New Orleans and showed some improvement when he rejoined the Marlins, batting .278 with six homers in 44 games. Even so, he was on the trading block during the offseason.
Ozuna concedes he was out of shape in 2015, so this year he reported for spring training lighter and fitter. He immediately began to bond with Bonds, and the home run king began preaching strike zone discipline to the free-swinging Ozuna.
“He talked to me about how you have to be patient and selective,” Ozuna said. “Right now I trust what I can do. I say, ‘Don’t rush.'”
As a result, he no longer swings so often at bad pitches. His walks are up and his strikeouts down.
What did Ozuna tell Bonds upon learning he would start for the NL stars in San Diego?
“I said, ‘Thank you,'” Ozuna said.
The All-Star Game will be his first since Class A in Florida in 2009. His parents, two sisters and two children will be at the game.
“I feel happy for my family because they’re proud of me,” he said.
He’s not the only Ozuna smiling these days.
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