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Juan Soto's Goof In Left Was High Comedy, But Marcell Ozuna's Mattered

Photo: Patrick Smith (Getty)

For my money, the two best highlights of the Nationals’ 8–1 Game 3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, a result that makes the rest of this series almost a formality, were bloopers. One looked stupid and hilarious and mattered not at all; the other almost looked like a very cool catch, until it didn’t, and mattered a ton.

Let’s work in reverse chronological order. In the top of the seventh inning, with runners on first and second and one out, Paul DeJong lined a single to left field, in front of rising 20-year-old Nationals star Juan Soto. Soto is a tremendous hitter who has a great time playing baseball for a living, but what he is not is an especially adept outfielder. He’s not fast, and he takes crooked routes, and his arm isn’t much. Here he gathered the ball on the run and loaded up for a throw back to the infield, where he was hoping to deter José Martínez from heading home. What followed was some real Bad News Bears type slapstick:

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Martínez held up at third, even while Soto was face-planting in the outfield, but when Soto’s rushed and panicky throw found a seam through the infield, Martínez was able to scurry home for the lone Cardinals run of the game. This was stupid and amazing, and I cackled aloud, but it amounted to nothing much—Stephen Strasburg fanned the next two hitters to escape the inning, and the Cardinals were left with a killed rally, a six-run deficit, and just six outs left to work with.

Marcell Ozuna was afforded no such grace on his own blunder in left, which came in the bottom of the third and the Nationals up 1–0 following an Adam Eaton RBI single. Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty had cruised through the first two innings, and allowed the one run on some small-ball action from the Nationals. He was one out away from getting out of the inning when Anthony Rendon sliced a soft blooper to shallow left. Ozuna, who is generally a reliable outfielder, charged toward the line to make the play on the fly, knowing that Eaton was chugging around the bases on contact. A catch here would’ve been a nice highlight, and would’ve preserved the general shape of the game, which had Flaherty mostly in command of the proceedings. Even if Ozuna had cleanly fielded Rendon’s hit off the bounce, he had a chance to keep Eaton from scoring.

Ozuna went for the sliding catch, and the ball tumbled out of his glove and then squirted away, toward the line. Eaton tore ass around third and was able to beat the throw home for the second run of the game; Rendon finished the play at second base; and Flaherty had to dial back in to face Soto, with a runner in scoring position. In short order the inning went to hell—Soto walked, and then NLDS hero Howie Kendrick ripped a bullet to the gap in right center—one of three scorched doubles for Kendrick on the night—clearing the bases and breaking the game open. By the time Flaherty retired Ryan Zimmerman, he’d thrown 33 pitches in the frame, all but ending any hope he’d be able to battle Strasburg into the later innings. Worse, the Cardinals had now given up as many runs in just the third inning of Game 3 as they’d had total hits in the first two games of the series.

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It’s been that kind of series for the Cardinals, and that kind of series for the Nationals. These teams haven’t been separated by much! Cardinals pitchers have been strong, but Nationals pitchers have been stronger. Nationals batters have struggled to string together baserunners, but Cardinals batters have been downright lost. The Cardinals fell victim to a goof in left field and couldn’t limit the damage; the Nationals fell victim to a goof in left field, and their pitcher dug in and escaped the jam. It’s not quite right to say the Cardinals have had no luck in the series—you could make an argument that the only thing they’ve had going for them through three games is luck:

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Either way, the Cardinals are in the deepest of shit now, down 3–0 with another two games to play in Washington. No one knows how the game might’ve gone differently if Ozuna makes that play in left, and it’s pointless to guess, but in a series where the Cardinals need some breaks, the Nationals getting their second run on a two-out ball with a sub-.200 expected batting average is just a brutal gut punch. It turns out the Cardinals aren’t gonna fuck up and kick the ass of their NLCS opponent after all.

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