In his first at-bat in an eventual Brewers win against the Marlins on Tuesday night, reigning NL MVP and 2019 MVP frontrunner Christian Yelich fouled a pitch off his right knee and fell to the ground in what looked like excruciating pain. The Brewers right fielder left the game, and not long after, the team broke the news that Yelich’s season was over with a fractured kneecap. The body that barely a week ago was proudly displayed in all its glory for an ESPN photoshoot will not be healed in time to help Milwaukee as they try to return to the playoffs for a second straight year by closing their current one-game gap with the Cubs for the second NL Wild Card slot.
This especially stings not just because Yelich is perhaps the best and most exciting baseball player this side of Mike Trout, but also because Milwaukee looked to be zeroing in on a postseason spot that seemed well out of reach just last week, when they sat five games back and were also stuck behind the Diamondbacks and Phillies. The team has been extra hot lately, going 8-2 over their last 10 games (including a 5-1 record against the Cubs) with Yelich serving up an OPS of 1.114.
Without their star slugger, this late-summer burst feels like it was all for nothing. But even before Yelich busted his knee with a foul ball, Milwaukee didn’t look so hot. The Brewers were already saddled with injuries in their batting order down the stretch—Lorenzo Cain has fought a lingering knee problem, Ryan Braun has struggled with a back problem, and Mike Moustakas and young spark plug Keston Hiura are both sidelined with their own ailments. The Brew Crew’s only truly reliable batter at the moment is catcher Yasmani Grandal, who’s recovered from an August slump to smack five dingers in the past eight games. The pitching staff won’t provide the diminished lineup much cover either; their only elite arm is Josh Hader, who pitches maybe one or two innings per appearance, and the next closest thing is starter Brandon Woodruff, who’s been out since July with an oblique problem and isn’t even a lock to come back to the team yet.
All is not lost, however, and even with an injury of this magnitude, the Brewers can’t be counted out yet. The Cubs, losers of four out of their last five, have their own major loss to contend with. Defensive wizard Javier Baez probably won’t return in the regular season after suffering a thumb injury, which, like Yelich’s injury, is bad for any neutral baseball fan but good for the teams that need Chicago to fall out of the Wild Card road-team spot. Also on Milwaukee’s side is the schedule. The Brewers only have one series remaining against a presumed postseason squad—the Cardinals—and after they move on from St. Louis, their final dates are with relative pushovers in the Padres, Pirates, Reds, and Rockies. The Brewers’ offense, which was league-average at best and will fall off a cliff without the might of Yelich, could still be enough to handle these 40-man cellar-dwellers waiting for winter.
The truth is, even if the Brewers had a healthy Yelich, and even if they did manage to overtake the Cubs for the second Wild Card spot before the end of the season, they and their -27 run differential will still be all but guaranteed to size up as the least impressive of all 10 MLB postseason squads. But the silver lining is that baseball might be the sport where that matters least. While there may not be a precedent for a pennant-winner quite as unheralded and untalented as the Brewers look now, the baseball playoffs are such a crapshoot that, as long as the depleted Brewers can make up that one-game deficit with Chicago, anything can happen. Christian Yelich did absolutely everything he could to get his team into what is at least still a threatening postseason position. All his healthy buddies need to do now is prolong the year, and hope that luck is on their side.