Yelich ties HR record, then wins game in 9th

MLB

MILWAUKEE — It’s easy to say that Milwaukee Brewers star outfielder Christian Yelich has picked up right where his MVP season left off. But he might actually be even better.

Yelich tied a major league record in the first inning Sunday, drilling a 1-0 fastball from St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha over the wall in right field for his fourth homer of the season. As it turned out, he was just getting started.

The reigning National League MVP became the sixth player in MLB history to start a season with homers in four consecutive games. The other five are: Willie Mays (1971), Mark McGwire (1998), Nelson Cruz (2011), Chris Davis (2013) and Trevor Story (2016).

For all the success he’s had lately, Yelich remains at a loss for words whenever he’s asked how he managed to get so locked in at the plate for so long.

“I don’t know, honestly,” Yelich said with a shrug. “I’m just trying to stay within an approach.”

The solo blast by Yelich gave Milwaukee a 1-0 lead in the first inning, but St. Louis rallied for four runs and still led 4-3 entering the ninth. With fireballing closer Jordan Hicks on the mound, pinch hitter Ben Gamel punched a double into the left-field corner, and Lorenzo Cain reached on an infield single on a ball that deflected off Hicks’ glove.

That brought Yelich to the plate with runners on the corners and none out. The percentages say you don’t put the tying run in scoring position in a spot like that, but considering the way Yelich is going, an intentional walk is something Brewers manager Craig Counsell says you have to consider.

“That’s [a question] for ([he Cardinals],” Counsell said. “You’ve certainly got to talk about it.”

St. Louis opted to pitch to Yelich, who jumped out to a 2-0 advantage in the count and then stroked a 102 mph Hicks sinker into the left-center field gap, scoring Gamel and Cain. When Cain slid into home plate head first, Yelich leaped into the air on second base, and fired his batting helmet into the air.

“(Hicks has) got really good stuff, the ball moves a lot,” Yelich said. “He’s got three really good pitches. You just want to make sure you get it in the zone and try to do something with it.”

The two-run double gave the Brewers a 5-4 win, as Milwaukee took three of four from division-rival St. Louis in the season-opening series.

“It was definitely a cool series,” Yelich said. “It was a great series for us. They’re a great team. They play us really well. These games were tight. You’ve got to execute to win them.”

Yelich won his first MVP award — the fifth in Brewers history — last season, with an epic second half of the season that propelled Milwaukee to the NL Central title. He’s continued that to begin the 2019 campaign. Through four games, Yelich is hitting .500 with four home runs and eight RBIs. He’s reached base in 12 of his 18 plate appearances.

“He’s on another planet, man,” Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff marveled on Saturday. “He’s so special. Just watching him, he’s so balanced. He’s not fooled that much. He’s on time with pretty much everything. It’s pretty cool to watch.”

Pitchers have taken note of Yelich’s power surge. He walked three times on Sunday, once intentionally, and has already drawn six free passes on the season. Since last season’s All-Star game, Yelich is hitting .373 with 29 homers and 75 RBIs in 69 games, with a .462 on-base percentage and .806 slugging percentage.

“He’s making really hard stuff look pretty easy,” Counsell said.

Yelich also extended a pair of records he set on Saturday. He became the first player in Brewers history to homer in the first four games of a season, and the first reigning MVP to do so. Yelich hit a career-best 36 home runs in 2018, but seems on track to fly past that figure this season.

“I’m really just trying to be present in the day, no matter if it goes good or bad the night before,” Yelich said. “Just reset and stay disciplined with your cage work with your team during (batting practice). Just focus on each day as its own solo (thing), I guess you could say. Don’t get hung up on the past or the future.”

Barry Bonds in 2002 and Albert Pujols in 2006 homered in the first two games of the year after winning MVP awards. Both of those all-time greats won multiple MVP trophies, a feat that Yelich looks more than capable of emulating.

“If you get to understand and to know (Yelich), he’s very competitive,” Counsell said before Sunday’s series finale. “It doesn’t come across right away, because he’s there is a lot of humility there and he’s not outspoken about things, generally. But he’s very competitive. I think he’s taken this all as a challenge and used it to his advantage.”

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