Braves' Chris Sale, Marcell Ozuna and Reynaldo López took unique routes to NL All-Star team

ATLANTA — After the Braves restored some faith among their fans by hitting three homers in the second inning and four in all during a series-clinching 6-0 win against the NL East-leading Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday, three players who helped keep them above water during a tumultuous first half made the All-Star team.

Pitchers Chris Sale and Reynaldo López and designed hitter Marcell Ozuna were selected to the National League team for the July 16 All-Star Game at Arlington, Texas. López added to his All-Star resume with six innings of two-hit ball Sunday to reclaim the major league ERA lead.

The Braves got homers from Adam Duvall, Jarred Kelenic and Matt Olson in the five-run second inning and one from Eli White in the sixth, giving them nine homers in the three-game series, two more than they hit in their previous 11 games including six losses. The Braves have won four of six against the Phillies but trail them by eight games in the division.

One year after leading MLB with eight All-Stars, the Braves have three, including no repeat selections and two pitchers in their first season with Atlanta.

Here are takeaways on the Braves’ three All-Stars.

Chris Sale receives first All-Star nod since 2018

It’s Sale’s eighth All-Star selection and first in six years, and it could be the most gratifying after what the 35-year-old lefty overcame. Sale had a run of seven consecutive American League All-Star selections, then was slowed or sidelined for parts of five seasons by injuries and a 2020 Tommy John surgery.

The Braves traded for Sale in December and signed him to a two-year, $38 million extension. They’ve seen good returns on that investment both with his pitching resurgence — Sale is 11-3 with a 2.71 ERA, majors-leading 0.91 WHIP and 127 strikeouts with only 19 walks in 99 2/3 innings — and his leadership in the clubhouse.

“It’s definitely satisfying,” Sale said. “I appreciate it, for sure. You go through some years like I had, and you start thinking if this is ever even a possibility again. And to be in this position, to have a team take a chance on me — it wasn’t an easy trigger to pull, I’m assuming, but they gave me a chance and I’m happy to be able to do this for them.”

Sale faced Ozuna in the 2017 All-Star Game, when Sale started for the AL and pitched two scoreless innings, striking out Ozuna to end the second.

“I’m never surprised by him. He’s the best,” Ozuna said. “He grinds every time he goes out there. He says, ‘I don’t care who you are, I’m gonna go out there and strike you out. If you get me, you get me, but I’ve got you next.’ I love the way he pitches, and I’m gonna tell God, ‘Please give him this year healthy and he’s going to show what he can do.’ I love him.”

Marcell Ozuna becomes an All-Star after years of struggle

It’s Ozuna’s third All-Star selection and first since back-to-back nods in 2016-2017 as a Miami Marlins outfielder.

“For me it’s amazing, to bring my kids to the All-Star Game now,” Ozuna said of returning to the Midsummer Classic as a 33-year-old DH, batting .295 with 23 homers and an NL-best 72 RBIs. “They’re grown up a little bit and they learned about baseball; it’ll be a good experience for them.”

The honor comes less than 15 months after many had written off Ozuna. Plenty of fans wanted the Braves to release him following two dismal seasons in 2021-2022, when he had injuries and problems on and off the field, and a terrible April 2023.

From the beginning of 2021 through April 2023, Ozuna had MLB’s eighth-worst average (.211) and 25th-lowest OPS (.652) among hitters with at least 700 plate appearances. But since May 1, 2023, he’s hit .298 with a majors-leading 170 RBIs, and ranks third with 61 homers and seventh with a .961 OPS in that period.

“He’s always been a pure hitter,” Braves veteran Charlie Morton said. “Yeah, he’s got a lot of pop, he’s a big, strong guy, but he’s got really good hands and he’s a good hitter. It’s nice to see him be himself. I don’t know how much all the other stuff (affected him), but you get in a little bit of a rut and it’s tough. Fans were booing him for a month and a half last year, and he was just grinding. And then to finish with the season he had, and just continue doing it — this is not a one-off.”

Sale said of Ozuna, “I obviously played against him a lot, but being on the same side is a lot of fun. He brings a lot of energy, everybody gravitates toward him. Guys look up to him because of what he’s done, the experiences he’s had and what he does on the field, but because of who he is in the clubhouse as well. If he’s in the room, it’s never dull. That’s what makes this game fun, those are the teammates you remember forever.”

Reynaldo López goes from former reliever to All-Star selection

A few months ago, López might’ve been the most improbable of the Braves’ three All-Stars. He’d spent much of 2021 and all of 2022-2023 as a reliever, mostly with the Chicago White Sox. In his last two years as a full-time starter (2019-20), he was 11-18 with a 5.52 ERA, 80 walks and 44 homers in 210 1/3 innings.

Now, he’s 7-2 with a majors-best 1.71 ERA after his sixth scoreless start Sunday, tied for most in the majors. He has 93 strikeouts, 34 walks and six homers allowed in 89 2/3 innings, and leads MLB qualifiers with a .062 opponents’ average (4-for-63) with runners in scoring position and .034 (1-for-29) with RISP and two outs.

“I’m very proud,” López said through an interpreter. “I give God thanks just for the way things have gone this season and for getting me to this point. It’s kind of crazy when you stop and think about it, the last three years pitching out of the bullpen, and then to come here and become a starter again and make the All-Star team.”

Sale said while he and Ozuna came back from some rough seasons, what López has done is a different kind of special.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but he’s the best pitcher in the league right now,” Sale said. “I mean, you look at what he’s done from start to finish, he’s the guy. That’s not easy to do in your first year back — new team, becoming a starter after pitching out of the bullpen a couple of years, it’s impressive. This is exciting for us, but we’re really excited for him. There’s nothing like the first one.”

(Photo of Sale throwing in a game last month: Geoff Burke / USA Today)

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