MILWAUKEE — As Christian Yelich and Jesus Aguilar, the foremost sluggers on a Brewers team full of them, sat side by side Thursday at the front of a news-conference room in the bowels of Miller Park, 16 minutes of questions were directed almost exclusively at Yelich.
As Milwaukee won 11 consecutive games — seven to finish the regular schedule, one in Game 163 against the Cubs to win the NL Central, three against the Rockies in the NLDS — chants of “M-V-P!” at Yelich from the fans in the stands and teammates in champagne-soaked clubhouses became the norm.
On Friday, his Brewers will open the National League Championship Series at home against the Dodgers, the team Yelich rooted for when he was growing up. They will face Clayton Kershaw, who not long ago was widely considered the best pitcher in the world and who Yelich has fared well against in limited chances.
He won a batting title (.326) this season. He led the NL in slugging (.598). He hit 36 homers and drove in 110 runs. He is a favorite — perhaps the favorite — to be named NL MVP next month. It’s hard for him to grab dinner in his new city’s Historic Third Ward neighborhood without being stopped by fans, a feat that was far easier with the assistance of the anonymity of April.
This is Yelich’s life now. And he can’t quite believe it.
“It's been a crazy year for sure,” said Yelich, an outfielder who played mostly in the corners this season. “A year ago today, if you'd told me that I would be sitting here talking to [dozens of reporters] and getting ready to play in the NLCS with everything that's transpired over the last few months, I might have called you crazy. But it's been a great ride.”
Regarding a year ago today: Yelich was a Miami Marlin, newly purchased by a group fronted by Derek Jeter, and increasingly disgruntled when it became clear the Jeter Marlins weren’t going to win in 2018 (or any time soon). He wanted out — and got it, in the form of a trade to the Brewers.
The Brewers were a pretty good — but not yet great — team in 2017. Yelich, similarly, was a pretty good — but not yet great— hitter. Together, they took several significant steps forward this season, with player and team ready to step onto their grandest stage yet come Friday.
When the Brewers dealt for Yelich in January, they were not sure how he would handle the increasingly bright spotlight that comes with an MVP push and pennant chase. But they had a good idea.
“You try to get about as much information about a player’s character as you possibly can,” Brewers general manager David Stearns said. “You work through your network, you work through your coaches’ networks. You never really know how a player is going to respond to increased profile. In this case, once you get to know Christian, you figured he was going to handle it pretty well.
“He’s a guy who is the absolute same whether he’s gone 4-for-4 or 0-for-4. That’s generally the mark of a pretty good player.”
What changed for Yelich on the field? A switch from Marlins Park to Miller Park helped, in terms of both ballpark dimensions and — say those close to him — atmosphere. So did the fact that Yelich, who has long hit the ball hard, finally started putting it in the air more often in the second half (though he insists this wasn’t specifically a launch angle-driven change).
And now this Southern California guy is four wins against his hometown team away from the World Series.
“So it's cool, something I'm really looking forward to,” Yelich said. “I was talking with friends and family, being like, 'could you believe like this is actually really happening right now?”"