The snakes started biting in Milwaukee even before the 2019 regular season began for the Brewers. Relievers Bobby Wahl and Corey Knebel were lost for the season before the end of Spring Training, and Jeremy Jeffress went on the shelf and never came back effectively before getting cut loose. Gio Gonzalez missed two months on the Injured List. Jimmy Nelson finally returned from his shoulder surgery, was ineffective, then went down with an elbow issue. Chase Anderson and Zach Davies have both had stints on the IL. Jhoulys Chacin spent time on the shelf and pitched well enough to get released. Corbin Burnes has been on and off the IL and batters have been tormenting him all year when he is on the mound. Brandon Woodruff took the next step as a rotation leader, then went down with a multi-month oblique injury at the end of July. Keston Hiura and Mike Moustakas both missed time in August and September.
But the most crushing blow came on Tuesday of this week, in the first inning against the lowly Miami Marlins. Reigning Most Valuable Player — and probable repeat MVP based on his work in 2019 — Christian Yelich fouled a ball off his knee and crumpled to the ground in pain. He limped off the field and it was later announced that the broken kneecap he suffered would end his 2019 season (an 8-10 week timeline for return, to be exact). I mean, how many millions of times throughout the history of baseball has a batter fouled a ball off their knee and not broken something?!
This team has been treading water for most of the season, weathering these injuries — and unforeseen levels of attrition from several other supposed key players — but something funny has been happening recently. Much like Craig Counsell’s squad last season, these Brewers have caught fire with expanded rosters in September. When play began on September 1st, the team was 4.0 games back of the second Wild Card spot sitting with a 69-66 record after a 12-14 August. But the Cream City Nine has now won seven games in a row, getting their record back to 10 games over .500 for the first time since June 12th. With their W-L record now at 78-68, the Brewers woke up this morning tied with the Chicago Cubs for the National League’s final playoff spot.
After Yelich sustained his season-ending injury, it would not have been surprising to see the Brewers suffer an emotional let-down and just sort of pack it in. After all, he was in the middle of the best offensive season in franchise history, setting new team records with OPS and wRC+, becoming the first MLB player in seven years to post a 40+ home run, 30+ stolen base season. In the immediate aftermath of that disaster, though, the team has so far shown incredible resiliency. Tyler Austin was the hero on that fateful Tuesday night, lifting a sacrifice fly in the ninth to score the go-ahead run in a 4-3 victory. On Wednesday, a two-home run game by birthday boy Mike Moustakas in his return to the lineup after a two week wrist injury was the big story on offense. In Thursday’s series finale, a two-run homer by baseball’s last 40/30 player, Ryan Braun, was the difference in Milwaukee’s 3-2 sweep-completing triumph. Braun and Yelich are close friends in real life who live near each other in Southern California during the offseason, and since the injury, Braun has felt compelled to wear Christian’s jersey underneath his own during the last two games. After his home run, he flashed a ‘2-2’ symbol with his fingers.
From top to bottom, everyone in the organization knows what the presence of Yelich means to the team. Team President David Stearns called it a gut-punch to lose his superstar. Craig Counsell characterized it as awful. Lorenzo Cain saw tears in Yelich’s eyes in the locker room after he heard the news, and praised his hard work while saying that it is now everyone’s responsibility to keep Christian’s head up. “We’ll try to find a way to get it done without him,” Cain said after Tuesday’s game. “Just for good luck,” Ryan Braun said about wearing Yelich’s jersey lately, “...I was just trying to bring the good vibes.
Within the locker room and among the fanbase, “Win It For Yeli” has become a rallying cry around Milwaukee over the past few days and figures to be a prominent acclimation for the next few weeks. Though the MVP will be sorely missed, his absence is softened a bit by some actual good news on the injury front. Moustakas’ return has already made a significant impact in the brief time since his recovery, and rookie star Keston Hiura figures to get some pinch-hit opportunities this weekend before returning to the the regular lineup and playing the field when the team returns home next week. Also on the mend is Woodruff, who should be back to pitching on a big league mound “within the week.” He won’t have enough time to get fully stretched out and back to the 6-7 inning starts he was consistently providing before his injury, but he should still be able to make a sizable impact as an out-getter within Counsell’s run prevention system before season’s end.
The team will need more than just those three returning players to step up, of course, and several others have so far made an impact. There’s Braun, of course. who has somewhat quietly posted a .907 OPS since the All-Star break. There’s Yasmani Grandal, who has launched five dingers this month and now owns the franchise record for most homers by a catcher in a season. There’s rookie Trent Grisham, who is hitting .324 with a 133 wRC+ so far in September and will get the bulk of the playing time in right field without Yelich. And then there is the entire pitching staff in general. Much-maligned all season long, the Brewers’ run prevention unit so far owns a cumulative 3.24 ERA this month, which is #2 in all of baseball. Expanded rosters means bullpenning season and a Craig Counsell who is totally in his element, and so far Josh Hader (0.00 ERA), Ray Black (0.00), Brent Suter (0.96), Drew Pomeranz (3.18), and initial out-getters Gio Gonzalez (2.25) and Jordan Lyles (2.51) have had the greatest positive influence on the pennant race.
It feels like anything that could go wrong has so far for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2019. They have a -24 run differential on the year, have dealt with a spate of injuries and mind-boggling amount of poor performances from former stalwarts, and are now without their best player for the rest of the year. But 146 games into this thing, the Brewers are right there with the rest of the National League teams competing for the final playoff spot.
16 regular season games remain for the Brew Crew to put some separation between themselves and the Cubs, Mets, Phillies, and Diamondbacks in the race for the second Wild Card slot. With momentum on their side, some key players getting healthy, a comparatively soft schedule, and a “Win It For Yeli” rallying cry, are you starting to get “that feeling” about this team yet?
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs