Gut punch? For a night? How about a possible gut amputation? For the season?
The Brewers had enough trouble keeping up with the Cubs in the National League wild card competition, or on the edge of the NL Central race, without losing their and the league’s arguable best all-around player for the rest of the year.
And it’s worse when you lose him to a freak injury. But that’s what happened to Christian Yelich Tuesday night, against the Marlins, when he fouled one off his right kneecap in the top of the first, dropping at once, in a game the Brewers went on to win, 4-3. He whacked the ball hard enough for it to fracture the cap.
Without him, the Brewers might as well be kneecapped.
“This is a guy who has carried us in a number of ways the last two years,” said general manager David Stearns after the game ended. “He could have been two and a half weeks away from a repeat most valuable player award. I think that’s where our thoughts go first. From a team perspective, we have a lot of guys in the clubhouse who will hurt tonight. This is a gut punch for a night.”
When you lose a player whose 7.7 wins above a replacement-level player are four full ahead of the next man on the team list (pitcher Brandon Workman) and 4.4 ahead of the next position player on the list (third baseman Mike Moustakas), and whose own WAR account for a third of the entire roster’s total WAR, it’s not just a one-night gut punch.
When you lose a man whose 2018 breakout was questioned as a fluke, until he raised his slugging percentage 74 points over last year’s and carried a Brewer offense that went backward when it wasn’t being injured otherwise, it’s not just a one-night gut punch.
When you lose a man with a .736 real batting average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifices divided by plate appearances) who’s leading the Show in total bases, slugging, OPS, and runs created, it’s not just a one-night gut punch.
(And did I mention that Yelich has a 94 percent stolen base percentage and a 53 percent rate of taking extra bases on followup batted balls?)
When you lose a player like that who takes as much of the sting as Yelich took out of the Brewers being 22nd in the National League in runs scoring off runners in scoring position—while Yelich himself posted a .327/.462/.693 slash line with runners in scoring position and a .384/.460/.791 slash line in high-leverage situations—it’s not just a one-night gut punch.
It’s practically the end of their season as the Brewers knew it. And they seemed to know it, for all their pull-it-together talk about moving forward regardless. Barring any heretofore unseen eruptions from anywhere else in the lineup or off the bench, the Brewers don’t have enough depth (and certainly not the pitching) to withstand a loss like this.
Think of the NL West-clinching Dodgers losing Cody Bellinger with three weeks of regular season yet to play. Or the first wild card-owning Nationals losing Anthony Rendon. (And they might, not to the injured list but to free agency after this season.) Think of the NL East-owning Braves losing Ronald Acuna, Jr. or the resurgent Josh Donaldson. Think of the American League West-owning Astros losing Alex Bregman. Those teams have the depth to survive.
The Brewers may even have to ask the question they surely don’t want to ask yet: Yelich will recover from this injury, but will it prove to be the injury that turns him from a difference-maker and team carrier to just another guy in the lineup who might yet be above average but won’t be the guy the other guys don’t even want to think about anymore?
“To get that kind of news during the game, guys were down in the dugout,” said center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who’s also fought injuries this year but isn’t the player he was during those prime Kansas City seasons, after Tuesday’s game. “We’re going to miss him. Those are big shoes to fill and it’s going to be hard to replace him.”
It may be even harder for Yelich to come to replace the Yelich that’s been.