MILWAUKEE -- Christian Yelich appears rather intent on holding onto that National League MVP Award for another year.
Yelich lined a 102 mph sinker from Cardinals closer Jordan Hicks for a walk-off, two-run double in the ninth inning and a 5-4 Brewers win at Miller Park on Sunday, eight innings after he matched a Major League record by homering in each of his team’s first four games.
Those hits, bookending a trio of walks, gave Yelich a 2.250 OPS through the first four games of 2019, and a .373/.462/.806 slash line with 29 home runs and 75 RBIs in 69 regular season games since last year’s All-Star break. That slugging percentage is more than 100 points better than the rest of MLB’s field in that span who've had at least 100 at-bats.
“I’ve never seen anyone this good at baseball for this long,” said Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun. “I mean, maybe [Barry] Bonds in his prime. As great as [Mike] Trout is. I’ve seen [Albert] Pujols. …
“I think everybody should take the time to appreciate it, because what we’re witnessing is greatness.”
Yelich is picking up where he left off last season, when he rode a sensational second half to winning the NL MVP Award. He batted .442 with four home runs in 43 Spring Training at-bats before reaching base 12 times in 18 plate appearances during the opening series against the Cardinals. He collected six hits including a double and four home runs, plus six walks. One of those walks was an intentional pass from Michael Wacha with one out, first base open and the Brewers leading 1-0 in the third inning of Sunday’s series finale. The winning hit, which followed Ben Gamel’s double in an 0-2 count and Lorenzo Cain’s infield single, gave Yelich eight RBIs through four games.
The Brewers caught a break when the baseball squirted away from diving Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader, giving Cain time to sprint from first to home.
“It turned fast,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell. “The game turned fast.”
The steady constant was Yelich, who was described as a “nuisance” to the Cardinals in a question for manager Mike Shildt.
“I’d say nuisance is being kind,” Shildt replied. “He had a really good series. A good player. We have to figure out a way to combat what he’s doing because he’s clearly more than a thorn in our side."
The comeback spared Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes a loss in his first Major League start, after Burnes struck out 12 batters but yielded a trio of Cardinals home runs before departing in a 4-1 deficit after five innings.
Braun and third baseman Travis Shaw delivered successive run-scoring singles in the seventh inning, Shaw’s on a routine pop-up that dropped over the head of Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter, who was positioned awkwardly because of an infield shift. It was still 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth when Gamel fought off a 99 mph sinker from Hicks to deposit a double into the right-field corner. The Brewers then caught another break when Cain’s infield hit caromed off Hicks’ glove.
That was a critical moment. Had Cain been retired, Shildt suggested the Cardinals would have probably intentionally walked Yelich, even though it would have meant putting the winning run on base.
That didn’t surprise the Brewers.
“If Cain doesn’t reach? One hundred percent,” said Shaw. “If he keeps doing this, it might end up being intentionally walk him with nobody on. If he keeps this pace up, I mean, I played with Mookie [Betts], and this is more impressive than Mookie.
“And on the homer -- did you see where that pitch was?”
The homer came on Yelich’s very first swing, against a 92 mph fastball from Wacha that was way above the strike zone. Statcast says the baseball was 3.88 feet off the ground, making it the highest pitch Yelich has hit for a homer since tracking started in 2015.
The Brewers and Cardinals tied a stadium record by combining to hit 18 home runs, and Braun called the distinction between splitting the opening series and winning three of four “huge,” especially against a team that the defending NL Central champion Brewers see as serious contenders.
“Honestly,” said Shaw, “going into the year I thought the Cardinals were the second-best team in the division, in my opinion. They played well. Their lineup is really good. Their lineup is a lot better than it was last year, and they still have all of those starters back. They’re going to be there all year long.”
Said Yelich: “It was definitely a cool series. It was a big series for us. They’re a great team. They played us really well. Those games were tight. You had to execute to win them. Our division is such a good division. I’ve got a feeling it’s coming down to the last game or two, like it did last year.”