The Wild Card race in the National League is constantly evolving with five teams within three games of the second spot behind the Washington Nationals. At some point, they all know something good or bad will separate them.
That’s precisely what happened to the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday night in Miami. Christian Yelich, the NL’s reigning MVP, who was in contention to defend his crown, will miss the remainder of the season after a foul ball fractured his right kneecap.
“First and foremost, we feel awful for Christian. This is a guy who’s carried us in a number of ways over the last two years,” said David Stearns, the Brewers general manager. “He could’ve [been] two and a half weeks away from a repeat Most Valuable Player award. So that’s where our thoughts go first.
“From a team perspective, we’ve got a lot of guys in that clubhouse who will hurt tonight. This is a gut punch for a night. And then we need to recover and play really strong baseball.”
Yelich, who has battled back issues all season, was hurt in the top of the first inning. It was immediately apparent he was in distress. He remained on the ground for an extended period before being able to limp back to the dugout.
Yelich was having another spectacular season for a team now just one game behind the Cubs for the second Wild Card spot. And it’s clear how much his team depended on his ability to get the big hits.
During last Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Cubs, he provided the game-winning RBI double in the bottom of the ninth inning. It concluded a night during which he reached base five times and stole three bases.
“The best game I’ve ever seen Yelich have,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said that night.
Yelich was batting .329, three points higher than in 2018 when he was the NL’s batting champion. He’d hit 44 home runs and with 97 RBIs. He led the majors in slugging percentage and OPS. Even though he is out, he has enough at-bats to qualify for another batting title. He’s also the third player ever to finish a season with an OPS of 1.100 or higher.
“We have to move forward,” said Counsell. “We feel awful for Christian. That’s the thing kind of resonating with me right now is he’s a special player, and it’s a joy to watch him play every day. And he’s the best at what he does. So not being able to see that every day is definitely no good. But we got to respond.”
The Brewers, who have won five straight, will turn to Trent Grisham in right field, a rookie who tied a team rookie game record by getting five hits on Monday.
“Obviously awful. We all know Yeli and what kind of guy he is,” said Marlins manager Don Mattingly, who was with Yelich in Miami before Yelich was traded to the Brewers before the 2018 season. “You hate to see a player like that get hurt down the stretch. He’s stepped into the superstar realm as a player and MVP last year. You don’t want to see that happen to a team down the stretch.”
Yelich was due to fly to Milwaukee Wednesday to determine if he’ll need surgery.
“He’s set the bar so high, and for him to continually meet expectations is almost impossible to do,” Ryan Braun told The Athletic. “We’ve seen very few baseball players in the history of the game play at this level for the last nine months. It’s incredible.”
Yelich entered Tuesday’s game with a WAR of 7.7. He’d also improved his slugging percentage from .598 to .672. He’s in the midst of a seven-year, $49.57 million deal through 2022 that seems ridiculously inadequate for someone with his ability.
Last week, he became just the 10th player in MLB history to record a 40-homer, 30 stolen base season. So his loss will hurt the Brewers in many ways, mostly by eliminating a powerful left-handed bat from their lineup to accompany Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal.
“Ben Gamel and Grisham are going to take a more prominent role,” said Counsell said. “We’ve got Lorenzo (Cain) feeling better. I think Ryan is feeling better as well.”
According to The Athletic, the Brewers have scored at least five runs four times in the last five games since Sept. 5. But their offense has been underwhelming this season. They are 20th in MLB with 675 runs scored and 17th with a .249 batting average.
“That was some big news,” Cain said. “He’s one of our leaders. He’s our MVP. To get that kind of news during the game, guys were down in the dugout. We’re going to miss him. Those are big shoes to fill and it’s going to be hard to replace him.”