Just one day after he came off the 10-day injured list, Christian Yelich was back on.
The Brewers shelved their star outfielder again on Tuesday and recalled outfielder Tyrone Taylor to take his spot, a significant setback considering that Yelich was just coming off a three-week absence for what the club is characterizing as a lower back strain. He tallied a pair of sharp singles in Monday’s 4-3 loss to the Phillies and passed the eye test, but quietly “gutted out the game,” according to manager Craig Counsell.
“That is not a realistic way to go through the day,” Counsell said. “Nothing happened last night that necessarily made it worse, but last night told us that he's not going to be able to do this on a daily basis. And so we need to stop and completely resolve this before we start again. ...
“I think Christian would like to know what’s going on. That’s the frustrating part for everyone involved and particularly for him. At this point, we don't have an answer."
Counsell was right on that point: Yelich is frustrated.
“I want to be out there, you know? I want to play baseball,” Yelich said. “You want to participate, you want to be with the team, you want to help contribute, especially with what we've got going on this year. We've got a shot to be pretty good, so you want to be a part of that and contribute, and to not be able to do that and just being on the IL, it always sucks, but even more so when it's an extended period of time.”
Asked about his symptoms, Yelich said, “Tightness, pain, restriction. Just really not being able to do a lot of -- not having the same mobility. Back stuff kind of controls your entire body, [as is known by] anybody that's ever dealt with anything back-wise. Not only just baseball, in your day to day life, it makes things difficult, let alone playing a baseball game. It's frustrating, it's tough to deal with, and we've got to get it figured out.”
Trouble is, Yelich already underwent an MRI scan that revealed no structural damage, so the Brewers will spend the next few days seeking "answers, or avenues to get answers,” Counsell said.
It’s not clear what that means beyond an MRI.
“I don't really want to go too far into the specifics of what's really going on, but I definitely think that it's something we need to look at and get a hold on and see what we can do going forward in the future,” Yelich said, “to either get a hold on it or at least have some sort of understanding on how to keep it at bay a little bit.”
Lorenzo Cain was also out of the lineup on Tuesday after returning from the IL on Monday night for a left quadriceps strain. His absence was planned, however, according to Counsell, who said Cain came through the game in good health.
Yelich has a history of occasional back trouble, but nothing like this. He spent two weeks on the Marlins’ injured list in 2014 and two more weeks in 2015 with lower back strains but returned promptly. When he experienced bouts of back stiffness with the Brewers from 2018-20, it never landed him on the IL.
That changed last month after Yelich had trouble getting loose in an April 11 game at St. Louis. The Brewers at first believed he’d avoid the IL, but later that week they changed course and added him to the long list of players who have been sidelined so far this season. When Yelich plateaued after resuming baseball activities, he underwent the MRI scan on April 24.
“That’s where the tough part of this lies,” Counsell said. "We’re not getting answers from that, but he doesn’t feel good. The MRI isn’t showing anything of any change in past MRIs, but he’s not feeling good enough to recover from playing for a day, which means there’s something else we haven’t yet diagnosed. We have to get the answer to that before we start playing again. …
“We’ve got to find a course that’s going to make it feel better. Basically, Christian got better and then we plateaued over a good period here. We all felt that it was time to try to see what would happen when he played, because we were plateaued, and we weren’t making any improvements. He tried and it didn’t work.”
Said Yelich: “I felt we had to try it and just see where we were at. It's hard to gauge. Obviously I felt good enough to try it, but you never really know until you go in the game. Rehab games weren't really a thing. We didn't have that option yet.”
The Brewers are highly incentivized to figure this out. Yelich effectively is in the second year of a nine-year contract he signed with Milwaukee last March, which added seven years and $188.5 million to the two seasons he had remaining on his previous contract at the time. That extension will kick in beginning in 2022 and carries Yelich through his age-37 season.
The worry, of course, is that Yelich continues to deal with this for the rest of his career. Based on what he’s heard from the doctors, he has hope the problem can be overcome.
“Yeah, I think so. We just, we need to get a better understanding of it,” Yelich said. “I think we've done a good job, it's just I'm not responding in the way that we need it to. So, we've got to figure out how to make that happen. I think there's an understanding of what it is and what's going on. But we just need to dive in a little bit deeper.”
Veterans added to Triple-A roster
Triple-A Nashville got a healthy dose of veteran experience in time for its long-awaited Opening Day. The Brewers sent three members of their 10-day injured list -- right-hander Josh Lindblom, infielder Jace Peterson and outfielder Derek Fisher -- to the Sounds on a rehab assignment on Tuesday while also signing veteran left-hander Wade LeBlanc, catcher Christian Kelley and first baseman Logan Forsythe to Minor League contracts and assigning them to the Sounds.
Players on rehab assignments can remain up to 30 days for pitchers and 20 days for position players.
Lindblom, who was placed on the IL because of fluid in his right knee, made his debut as the Sounds’ Opening Day starter on Tuesday night at Toledo, and he's expected to pitch at least twice for Nashville before the Brewers re-evaluate. Peterson is on the IL with a nerve issue in his left thumb and Fisher with a left hamstring strain.
“Anytime that the rehab process starts, that’s a good thing. That means we’re playing,” Counsell said.
Vogelbach on Hiura: ‘We need him’
Monday’s option of slumping first baseman Keston Hiura means a more prominent role for Daniel Vogelbach, who knows exactly what Hiura is feeling. Vogelbach was an All-Star for the Mariners in 2019 but fell into a deep slump in the season's second half that bled into 2020, when he was twice designated for assignment -- first by Seattle and then by Toronto -- before finally finding success during a late-season stint with Milwaukee.
“I think sometimes having [Minor League] options may be a good thing, just for kind of a reset,” Vogelbach said. “Keston’s a really good player. He’s hit his whole life. It’s just something that doesn’t just go away. We need him.”
Vogelbach said he texted Hiura some words of encouragement on Monday night after the Brewers made the move and shared some of his personal experience.
“You start searching for stuff. You start questioning yourself,” Vogelbach said. “I just kind of just told him don’t lose the confidence in himself. Stuff doesn’t just go away. Everybody struggles at different points in their career. I think the biggest thing is just trusting that everything’s going to work out and believing in yourself. I think when you do that, when you struggle, you learn from it, and after you do that, it helps you in the long run because once you struggle again, you know what gets you out of it.”