MILWAUKEE — The doors to the Milwaukee Brewers clubhouse had just opened to the media Wednesday when the semicircle began forming around Christian Yelich’s locker.
As it grew to two-deep all the way around, Yelich looked up and noted he was supposed to do a session in the media room 45 minutes later. Turns out he was off by one day, but he asked if everyone could wait for a day to hear from him.
Welcome to Yelich’s new world, as he transitions from a solid, underappreciated player laboring in obscurity for the Miami Marlins for five seasons, to one of the game’s brightest stars, the almost certain National League MVP and the face of the franchise.
It’s a role he may never have yearned for, but one he has accepted graciously as he’s learned to handle the growing demands on his time.
“It’s been fine,” he said. “It hasn’t really changed how you’ve gone about your day or how you’ve performed as a player. It’s been a crazy year for sure. I think a year ago today, if you’d told me that I would be sitting here talking to all you guys 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.
“It’s been a lot of fun. You’re enjoying it as a player. It’s been an honor. It’s been a great group of guys to go out there and compete with. And we’re looking for more.
“It’s been a great story for us up to this point, but I feel like we have a few more steps that we can take as a team and we’re looking forward to having that opportunity. Hopefully we can finish off this year on a really high note and have it all come full circle.”
His teammates say he is the ideal person to take on the responsibility of assuming the lead role on the team.
“I think the thing that stands out about him is how good a person he is,” said third baseman Mike Moustakas, who joined the team in a midseason trade with the Kansas City Royals. “As great of a ballplayer he is, he’s an even better person.
“He’s so humble. He’s just awesome to be around. He’s a great leader in this clubhouse, a great teammate and I think that’s what makes him even that much better.”
Ryan Braun, Yelich’s predecessor as the centerpiece of the franchise, said Yelich is deserving of all the accolades coming his way with his performance on the field.
“He’s just elevated his game to a level where there are very few players on the planet who are as good as he is at playing this game,” Braun said.
The Brewers knew they were getting one of the better players in the league who at age 26 figured to be coming into his peak years when they agreed to trade four of their top prospects — outfielders Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison, second baseman Isan Diaz and pitcher Jordan Yamamoto — for him in January on the same day they signed free agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain.
At the time they figured to be adding a consistent bat to the top of their lineup and a versatile defender to their outfield mix. But Yelich, a career .290 hitter whose career high in home runs was 21 in 2016, emerged as a dominant force.
He led the league in batting with a .326 average, hitting 36 home runs with 110 RBIs — all career highs. And in true MVP fashion, he turned it up in the second half, batting .367 with 25 homers and 67 RBIs after the All-Star break. Ten of those home runs came in September as the Brewers surged to the NL Central title.
That performance carried a lot of weight with manager Bud Black of the Colorado Rockies, the Brewers’ opponent in the NLDS.
“What I appreciate is doing it in September,” Black said. “That tells you a lot about a player, what they do when the stakes are the highest.”
Brewers manager Craig Counsell has admired Yelich’s steady contributions throughout the season. But if forced to pick one game it would be the night of August 29 when Yelich went 6-for-6 with his second cycle in a span of 12 days as the Brewers rallied from a 10-6 deficit to a 13-12 victory at Cincinnati. That started a run that saw the Brewers go 23-7 the rest of the regular season as they overcame a five-game deficit to the Cubs.
“We were winning series at the time but it didn’t feel like we were getting momentum,” Counsell said. “You can always circle one game, but I feel like that was a game and that was a series where we toughened up as a team. That was an improbable game that we won in Cincinnati and to me, that felt like the start of this. I felt like that game was the game that put us on a really nice roll.”