MILWAUKEE -- “How did you guys even know about that?”
Christian Yelich asked the question of his questioners late Friday night, a day after an 0-for-5 showing in Thursday’s series-opening loss to the Cubs prompted an extended pregame huddle with Brewers hitting coach Andy Haines, which preceded another signature game for Yelich as he vies for a second straight National League Most Valuable Player Award -- and more importantly, a return to October.
Yelich reached safely four times and tallied three hits, including a go-ahead, three-run home run in the third inning -- No. 44 this season -- that sent the Brewers to a 7-1 win at Miller Park to keep Milwaukee’s postseason hopes alive.
“It's Christian,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell. “If he has a rough game, something really good is probably going to happen the next day. That's why he's a great player. He doesn't let these things last.”
Yasmani Grandal also homered on a night that Zach Davies and three Brewers relievers not named Josh Hader held the Cubs to three hits. The Brewers climbed within four games of the Cubs for the National League’s second Wild Card with 22 games to play, starting with two more chances to cut into Chicago’s lead on Saturday and Sunday. The NL Central-leading Cardinals also lost Friday, so the Brewers are 6 1/2 games back in the division.
The math of the thing says it will take a winning streak to close the gap, something the Brewers have had a hard time putting together this summer. Incredibly, they are 5-5 in their last 10 games, 10-10 in their last 20 games, 15-15 in their last 30 games, 20-20 in their last 40 games, 25-25 in their last 50 games and, thanks to Friday’s win, 30-30 in their last 60 games. Playing .500 baseball won’t be enough.
“We’d really like to win three of four,” Yelich said of this final series of the season against Chicago. “I think that was a good goal going into the series. But you’ve got to win tonight to do that and worry about tomorrow and keep going. It’s no secret we have a lot of ground to make up, and we’re running out of time to do it and we don’t have any more head-to-head matchups [after this weekend]. So these games are extremely important, and the guys played really well tonight.”
After Nicholas Castellanos put the Cubs on the board first with a two-out home run off Davies in the top of the third inning, Yelich provided the answer. He reached safely four times in the game with three hits, the biggest a booming, three-run homer on a full-count changeup from Cole Hamels that sailed a Statcast-projected 415 feet to right field.
It left Yelich at 499 career RBIs. He ended the night leading the Major Leagues with a 1.093 OPS and a .437 weighted on-base average, just ahead of the Angels’ Mike Trout in both categories. In home runs, Yelich trails only Trout and the Mets’ Pete Alonso, who have 45 apiece.
“He got a changeup. He genuflected and hit it out, back wall in right-central field at Miller Lite Field,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “The ball just, really, there's zero gravity in this ballpark. It's incredible. But, I'm not denigrating Yelich. He's a really good hitter. It was a great at-bat. But, I cannot believe how the ball carries here.”
Maddon added, “The at-bat by Yelich kind of flipped the whole thing. I really liked the way Cole was looking to that point, and it just went away quickly."
It came on the heels of Yelich’s 0-for-5 showing in Thursday’s series-opening loss that prompted some one-on-one time with Haines, Yelich’s old Minor League manager in the Marlins' system. Friday’s was heavier on talk and video study than swings, said Yelich, who had a hard time putting into words what he and Haines put into practice.
“We do that stuff all the time,” Yelich said. “I don’t hit BP on the field a lot anymore. I do a lot of my stuff in the cage. There was more talking than swinging, probably. Looking at video, going over things. It’s hard to get in depth about it. …
“I guess it’s a way of thinking. It’s hard to explain. It’ll look probably exactly the same to the naked eye.”
Yelich was the first of five different Brewers players to drive in a run in the team’s best night at the plate in nearly two weeks, since a 16-8 loss at Washington on Aug. 18. Grandal’s home run an inning later was his 24th overall and 21st as a catcher this year, matching Dave Nilsson’s single-season franchise record. Nilsson hit 21 homers as the Brewers’ catcher in 1999.
“It seems like nothing really hits him,” Grandal said of Yelich. “Even when he’s not feeling too great, it looks like he’s feeling fine. I don’t think there’s too many emotional ups and downs with him. He keeps it steady. He’s able to do what we’ve seen him do. It’s special. I’ve played with guys who have had really good seasons, and I don’t think none of those guys are at the level he’s at right now. We’re definitely watching something special.”