Nothing short of a superhero’s welcome greeted Christian Yelich as he stepped into the batter’s box in the first inning of Game 1 of the NLCS. Chants of “MVP, MVP” rained down from the Miller Park crowd, a reception befitting the man whose otherworldly play over the previous three-plus months had led the Brewers to their first league championship series since 2011. He was facing a pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, who he had taken deep twice this season and was 9-for-17 against in his career. On the tenth pitch of the at-bat, Yelich struck out. Then he struck out again in the fourth inning. Then again in the sixth.
Alex Bregman came inches away from adding another clutch playoff hit to his already-impressive résumé. It was the kind of moment when Bregman thrives. Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs, trailing by two runs in the game and one game in the ALCS. A chance to create a classic postseason moment. Despite Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel having walked three batters this inning and preparing to throw his 35th pitch of the night, Bregman lunged at the moment, swinging at the first pitch and lining it to shallow left field. If it had fallen, the game would’ve been tied, at worst, and the crowd sent into a frenzy. Instead, Andrew Benintendi made a diving catch and Bregman finished the night 0-for-5.
There are a number of reasons why the Brewers and Astros are each one loss away from seeing their seasons end. Bullpen struggles, controversial calls, the list goes on. But one big, obvious thing that would help both on-the-ropes teams survive would be for their best hitter to start playing like the MVP that the fans in Milwaukee and Houston tell them they are every time their names are announced. Yelich and Bregman, two of the five best hitters in baseball, are a combined 5-for-31 in the LCS and have squandered numerous opportunities to come up with the big hits for which their teams relied on them all season.
Yelich’s three strikeouts and four men left on base in Game 1 didn't matter because of the Brewers' 6–5 win. His continued struggles have mattered. By his own admission, he has felt “a little off.” “I’m just not getting it done,” he said after Game 5. “I’m having opportunities, getting pitches to hit. I’m just missing them. I’m not executing. I’ve got to figure it out.” Watching Yelich flounder at the plate has been strange, given that he was the hottest hitter on the planet during the second half of the season. Initially, it seemed his run would continue into October. Yelich knocked three hits in the NL Central tiebreaker and blasted a home run in Game 1 of the NLDS.
Yet starting in the second game against the Rockies, Yelich has three singles in seven games. Pitchers have tip-toed around him (his ten walks this postseason have kept his OBP at nearly .400), but that’s nothing new; Yelich walked 24 times in September. Only now, for whatever reason, he isn’t driving the pitches he does get. His lack of production has hurt the Brewers in some big spots. Down 4–3 in the bottom of the ninth in Game 2, Yelich grounded out with a runner on second to end the game. Kershaw struck him out with runners on second and third and one out in the third inning of Game 5 and the Brewers looking to expand on a 1–0 lead. Overall, Yelich has left eleven runners on base without a single RBI in the NLCS.
Bregman's defense at third base has been incredible and like Yelich, he has been treated with caution by opposing pitchers. He walked three times in each of the first two games against the Red Sox. But between Bregman’s MVP-caliber season, his playoff reputation, and his constant displays of (understandable) confidence in interviews and on social media, the level of expectation has been raised for the 24-year old. Through four games, he has just two hits and hasn’t yet delivered the big knock that he’s become known for.
Sporting a Twitter profile picture of the Drake song “Back to Back” to represent his plans for celebrating another World Series title, Bregman started the 2018 playoffs with a bang. He slashed .556/.714/1.333 with two homers in the ALDS, furthering the legend he began in last year’s championship run. This round, though, he’s come up just short in big moments. First it was the last pitch of Game 2, when he just got under a fly ball off of Kimbrel that could’ve tied the game. The Astros lost Game 3 and Benintendi made sure they lost Game 4 too.
Their backs are against the wall, but the Brewers and Astros aren’t ready to let network executives celebrate a Dodgers-Red Sox World Series just yet. Both teams have the ability to get hot and turn things around quickly; if the Brewers can win Game 6 at home and the Astros get good starts from Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, there could be two Game 7s before we know it.
To make that happen, Yelich and Bregman will need to start playing like MVPs again.