MILWAUKEE — Christian Yelich hopes fans treat him rudely when the Brewers return to Wrigley Field this weekend for the first time since snatching the National League Central title from the Cubs in Game 163 last fall.
And he expects nothing less.
“I like the atmosphere,” Yelich said. “I like the environment when our two teams play each other. They’re usually pretty close games, pretty intense games. I like going into the hostile environment. I like being disliked there.”
Disliked? Yelich was told his treatment at Wrigley pales in comparison with the hostility displayed toward teammate Ryan Braun.
“Yeah, they’re for sure hostile to Brauny,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s easy to get up for those games. I don’t expect it to be a great welcoming after how we left off last season there. It’ll just add to the atmosphere, I’m sure.”
This series needs no hype after the way things went in their last meeting Oct. 1 at Wrigley.
The Brewers memorably won the Central tiebreaker 3-1 to advance to the division series after trailing the Cubs by six games on Aug. 28. That left the Cubs in the precarious position of having to win the NL wild-card game, which they lost to the Rockies. That led to the “reckoning” pronouncement by Cubs President Theo Epstein, putting the players in win-or-else mode in 2019.
After a woeful start, the Cubs have begun making noise. Since losing two of three at Miller Park to end their opening trip at 2-7 and falling 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the Central, the Cubs have gone on a prolonged tear, winning 20 of 25 and taking over first place in a tight, four-team race.
The Brewers also are hot, bringing in a six-game winning streak after a 7-3 victory Wednesday against the Nationals. Adding to the festivities will be the Brewers’ first appearance on “Sunday Night Baseball” since Sept. 23, 2013, against the Cardinals.
Has ESPN finally discovered the Brew Crew? Manager Craig Counsell said he’s not naive enough to think that’s the case.
“It’s Milwaukee. We’re not a major media market, so they’re not going to put us on Sunday night,” Counsell said. “We’re playing a big media market. It’s because we’re playing the Cubs.”
So nothing has really changed since last year. The Brewers still like to play the small-market card to portray themselves as underdogs against the Cubs, even though they’ve basically been neck-and-neck over the last two seasons. Through Wednesday, the Cubs won 208 games since opening day 2017; the Brewers 205.
Yelich, the reigning NL Most Valuable Player, leads the majors with 16 home runs and is battling with the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger at or near the top of most significant offensive categories. He will be center stage once again this weekend.
The Cubs are scheduled to start three left-handers — Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester — after keeping the left-handed-hitting Yelich in check in 2018.
Yelich hit .213 off Cubs pitching in 16 games last season, with no home runs and six RBIs. In 10 games at Wrigley — including Game 163 — he hit .205 with only two RBIs in 39 at-bats. And while he’s having another MVP-caliber season, it’s mostly because he has thrived at Miller Park. He has only one home run and five RBIs in 15 road games.
Yelich’s MVP season didn’t impress Las Vegas oddsmakers heading into 2019. His chances of a repeat were considered remote behind Bryce Harper, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldscmidt and Manny Machado.
One online betting site had the over/under on Yelich’s home-run total at 26.5 and RBIs at 92.5. Entering the weekend he already has 16 and 37.
“That’s probably the furthest thing from my mind at the beginning of the season,” Yelich said of the MVP race while adding he takes some pleasure in being doubted. “I feel like a lot of people really didn’t think I could do it again.”
Does he wonder why?
“You’d have to ask everyone else,” he said. “That’s been used as motivation throughout the offseason and into this season. It just seems in the baseball world these days, if you’ve had success one year it’s because you got lucky, and they just say you can’t do it again.
“Why not use that as fuel? Any edge you can use as motivation to get you through the season, why not?”
The Brewers don’t care if no one outside of Wisconsin is paying attention to Yelich’s numbers. But in his second year in Milwaukee, he has become one of the game’s elite players, perhaps just a notch below Mike Trout.
So why was Yelich overlooked again?
“Look, he’s done some remarkable things, but at this point this is Christian Yelich, that’s what it feels like,” Counsell said. “Maybe we’re spoiled because he’s playing at such a high level, but he could be doing even better. He’s had two home runs robbed by Bellinger and Mike Trout.
“He’s definitely impacting the game every day, and he’s definitely impacting the other team’s decision-making and having (to deal with) a guy like that.”
Yelich said he has a good relationship with Bellinger, whom he called a “good kid” — which seemed a little strange coming from a 27 year old. Bellinger, 23, said recently he has been paying attention to Yelich in the box scores.
“You can’t ignore what he’s been doing,” Yelich said. “If you’re in the game of baseball you have to take note of what he did in the first month of the season. We’ve got a long way to go. …
“He obviously got off to a great start and he’s super talented player. It’s no surprise he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s been unbelievable.”
Whether the two can keep up this mind-boggling pace is anyone’s guess. Yelich said he’s not thinking too far ahead.
“My mindset is live in the moment,” he said. “When you do that and look up at the end of the season, you’re going to be all right. Our team has done a good job of that, and I’ve tried to do a good job of that.”