In the crowded National League wild card race, where the Washington Nationals’ recent cold spell and the Chicago Cubs’ general lack of a finishing kick have tightened the standings and expanded the field in these late stages of the regular season, the Milwaukee Brewers, at least until late Tuesday night, might have had as good a chance as anyone — thanks to a favorable schedule, a bit of momentum and, of course, the presence of arguably the best player in the league on their side.
But that was before the Brewers received the devastating news that right fielder Christian Yelich, their dynamic right fielder and a leading candidate for a second straight NL MVP award, was lost for the season after fouling a ball off his knee and suffering a fractured kneecap. The news came in the aftermath of a 4-3 win in Miami that left the Brewers at 76-68, one game behind division rival Chicago for the NL’s second wild card.
Yelich, a 27-year-old who was a near-unanimous pick for MVP in 2018, has been locked in a race for the same award all season with Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and with Washington’s Anthony Rendon and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. gaining ground on both. To say he was the Brewers’ best player would be a vast understatement: baseball-reference.com has him worth 7.1 WAR (wins above replacement) this season; no other Brewer, pitching or position player, was above 3.0.
The Brewers, winners of five straight entering Wednesday, will pick themselves up and remain in the fight, but it’s difficult not to view the loss of Yelich — who had 44 home runs and a owned a major-league-leading 1.100 OPS at the time of his injury — as fatal to the team’s hopes, with only 2 ½ weeks remaining in the regular season.
“We’ve got a lot of players in that clubhouse who will hurt tonight,” Brewers General Manager David Stearns told reporters in announcing the Yelich news. “This is a gut punch for a night. And then we need to recover and play really strong baseball.”
It’s not that the gap between the Brewers and the teams they are chasing is so wide — they could conceivably tie the Cubs for the second wild card by the end of Wednesday’s play. What hurts the Brewers is the wide-open nature of this race, with the Brewers one of four teams — the others being Philadelphia (75-69), Arizona (75-70) and the New York Mets (74-70) — who begin play Wednesday within three games of the Cubs.
Chances are one or more of them have a sustained finishing kick left in them, and the question for the Brewers is whether they can match or exceed those teams. The remaining schedules certainly work in their favor. After a three-game series at NL Central-leading St. Louis this weekend, the Brewers won’t play another game against a team with a winning record, finishing their season with series against the San Diego Padres, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies.
Every contending team is dealing with some sort of injury issues by this point in a long season, and just within the past week the Cubs (shortstop Javier Báez) and American League Central-leading Minnesota Twins (center fielder Byron Buxton) have each lost one of their most indispensable players for the rest of the season. (Báez could return in October if the Cubs make the playoffs.)
But Yelich, as a player, is on another level, and losing him, for the Brewers, is as brutal a blow as a team can endure at this point in the season. We will know in a matter of weeks, if not days, if it was fatal.