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Brewers face key test — Keeping playoff hopes alive without Yelich

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Terrible news from Miami, where the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Miami Marlins 4-3, but announced after the game that Christian Yelich will miss the rest of the season after breaking a kneecap on a foul ball in the first inning. The freak injury came on a 1-1 slider from Elieser Hernandez that Yelich fouled off the top of his right knee. He crumpled to the ground and lay there for a couple minutes before walking off under his own power, but grimacing in pain as he retreated into the clubhouse.

It’s a devastating injury for the Brewers, who lose not just their best player, but a player who had a chance to win his second consecutive National League MVP award, as Yelich’s season ends with him batting .329/.429/.671 with 44 home runs and 30 stolen bases. His combination of hitting with power, hitting for average and thievery on the bases has made him one of the most exciting players in the sport the past two seasons, an obvious fan favorite in Milwaukee but also one of the faces of the game as a superstar slugger.

The Brewers began the night two games back of the Chicago Cubs for the second wild-card berth and pushed across the winning run in the top of the ninth. Trent Grisham, Yelich’s replacement in the lineup, contributed a key double. With closer Josh Hader unavailable, Drew Pomeranz worked around two hits in the bottom of the ninth for his first save.

General manager David Stearns commented after the game on the crushing loss:

Lorenzo Cain also commented on losing his outfield mate:

The Brewers are already playing with an injury-riddled lineup. Standout rookie second baseman Keston Hiura, second on the team in OPS, has been out since Aug. 30 with a hamstring strain. Mike Moustakas, who pinch-hit on Tuesday, has had just seven plate appearances since Aug. 26 due to a wrist injury. Cain (knee) and Ryan Braun (back) have been playing through injuries.

Somehow, the Brewers have nevertheless won five in a row — including the final three games of a four-game series against the Cubs — and eight of their past 10. There’s not much solace here, but Yelich has missed time this year with recurring back problems and the Brewers are 10-7 when he doesn’t start (11-7 if you count Tuesday’s win). The Brewers also have the easiest remaining schedule of the NL playoff contenders as they have only one series remaining against a playoff contender (this weekend at St. Louis). They have two more games in Miami and, after the Cardinals series, finish up with the Padres, Pirates, Reds and Rockies.

Still, a makeshift lineup will now be even more makeshift. Travis Shaw started at third base on Tuesday and he’s hitting .151. Cory Spangenberg started at second and he has a .273 OBP. Hernan Perez played shortstop and he has a .276 OBP. Cain is hitting just .253/.321/.353. Without their MVP candidate, and minus Hiura and Moustakas, you have to wonder where the runs will come from. At least the Brewers have some depth in the outfield with Grisham — who has hit .263/.324/.455 in 33 games — and Ben Gamel, but they’re not going to come close to Yelich’s production.

This Brewers team has found a way to overcome adversity, however. Last year, they won their final seven games and nine of their final 10 to force a tie with the Cubs for the NL Central title and then beat the Cubs in the tiebreaker game. This year, they’ve had to overcome the struggles and injuries in the rotation. Jhoulys Chacin, who started that tiebreaker game a year ago, went from staff ace to getting released in late August with a 5.79 ERA. Brandon Woodruff, their best starter this season, has been out since July 21 with an oblique injury. Corbin Burnes was supposed to be a key part of the rotation, but he’s 1-5 with a 9.00 ERA. Then there’s reliever Jeremy Jeffress, an All-Star last season who was recently cut loose as well.

Somehow the Brewers have fought through all of this and remained in the playoff race. They’re going to need Grisham or Braun or Eric Thames to get on a roll. They need Moustakas back ASAP. Manager Craig Counsell showed restraint in not using Hader on Tuesday after he had pitched Saturday and Sunday against the Cubs, but he’s probably going to have ride the dominant lefty a little harder these final two-plus weeks.

On paper, the Brewers have little chance. They’ve been outscored on the season, their best player is down, they have ground to make up and precious little time left. But don’t count them out:

As they say, in baseball, anything can happen.



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Fans heckling Astros spring opener get signs confiscated

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Fans hoping to heckle the sign-stealing Houston Astros at their spring opener were met with quite the coincidence.

They got their signs taken.

In the Astros’ first spring training game since their sign-stealing scandal rocked baseball, some fans brought signs jeering Houston, and ballpark personnel confiscated them before the Grapefruit League opener against the World Series champion Washington Nationals on Saturday night.

In a Series rematch, the Nats got hearty cheers, while everyone in an Astros jersey — including the mascot, Orbit — was booed. Houston did not use any players implicated in MLB’s probe.

Two men in Nationals gear sitting behind the Astros dugout briefly held up crudely drawn signs just before first pitch. One read: “You see my hate?” in large block letters. And another said: “Houston” with an asterisk below it, suggesting the Astros’ 2017 World Series title should be permanently blemished because of the cheating.

The men didn’t get to show off their signs for long. A woman who worked for the ballpark quickly approached to take the signs. The men didn’t argue with the woman, but they did look confused as she walked away with the signs folded in her arms.

The Astros and Nationals share a spring training complex. Houston was designated the home team Saturday.

Matthew Silliman, who held one of the signs, said he didn’t know they were forbidden. He drove to the game from Tampa Bay and said he has been waiting to let the Astros know what he thinks of them.

“I’m a big Nats fan and it’s wrong,” he said. “They’re cheaters.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred concluded last month the Astros violated rules by using a television camera to steal catchers’ signs during their run to the 2017 World Series title and again in the 2018 season. Manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for one season and then fired by the team, but players were not disciplined.

Fans booed loudly every time the public address announcer said “Astros,” and fans behind Houston’s dugout heckled Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. as they stood on the dugout steps before the game. A few fans banged on their metal seats, attempting to mimic the banging on a trash can the Astros used to relay stolen signs to hitters.

One fan in a Nationals jersey yelled: “Hey Altuve, are you scared to play tonight?” Others screamed “You suck!” and “Cheaters!”

About a half-dozen fans wore shirts that read “bang foul poles, not trash cans” in reference to Howie Kendrick‘s decisive home run for Washington in Game 7 of last year’s World Series.

First-year Houston manager Dusty Baker said he didn’t think the reception was “too bad” and said his team will have to get used to it.

“You’ll probably get the same reception most places you go, especially the first go-round,” he said. “So, you’ve just got to put your big-boy pants on and then just try to shut it out and just play baseball and realize this too shall pass.”

Washington ace Max Scherzer, who started Game 7 to help the Nationals to their first title, also started Saturday and pitched two scoreless innings. He was asked if he thought Saturday night’s game would be more dramatic considering what’s going on with the Astros.

“Maybe, I don’t know,” he said. “We won the World Series, so it wasn’t like I have a vendetta to hold. So, for me over here we’re just trying to move forward and get ready for our season.”

Scherzer was a bit disappointed that none of Houston’s starters played Saturday when he allowed one hit and struck out two.

“You want to face the best,” Scherzer said. “They’re a great lineup, but I get it, it’s early in the spring, you’re not going to see them.”

And while Silliman didn’t get to keep his signs, he said it wouldn’t stop him from heckling the Astros with his voice.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “They’re going to get it all.”

He didn’t have long. The game was delayed because of rain after two innings and canceled about 90 minutes later when rain continued.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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Fans heckling Astros spring opener get signs stolen

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Fans hoping to heckle the sign-stealing Houston Astros at their spring opener were met with quite the coincidence.

They got their signs stolen.

In the Astros’ first spring training game since their sign-stealing scandal rocked baseball, some fans brought signs jeering Houston, and ballpark personnel confiscated them before the exhibition opener against the World Series champion Washington Nationals on Saturday night.

In a Series rematch, the Nats got hearty cheers, while everyone in an Astros jersey — including the mascot, Orbit — was booed. Houston did not use any players implicated in MLB’s probe.

Two men in Nationals gear sitting behind the Astros dugout briefly held up crudely drawn signs just before first pitch. One read: “You see my hate?” in large block letters. And another said: “Houston” with an asterisk below it, suggesting the Astros’ 2017 World Series title should be permanently blemished because of the cheating.

The men didn’t get to show off their signs for long. A woman who worked for the ballpark quickly approached to take the signs. They didn’t argue with the woman, but they did look confused as she walked away with them folded in her arms.

The Astros and Nationals share a spring training complex. Houston was designated the home team Saturday.

Matthew Silliman, who held one of the signs, said he didn’t know they were forbidden. He drove to the game from Tampa Bay and said he’s been waiting to let the Astros know what he thinks of them.

“I’m a big Nats fan and it’s wrong,” he said. “They’re cheaters.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred concluded last month the Astros violated rules by using a television camera to steal catchers’ signs during their run to the 2017 World Series title and again in the 2018 season. Manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for one season and then fired by the team, but players were not disciplined.

Fans booed loudly every time the public address announcer said “Astros,” and fans behind Houston’s dugout heckled Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. as they stood on the dugout steps before the game. A few fans banged on their metal seats, attempting to mimic the banging on a trash can the Astros used to relay stolen signs to hitters.

One fan in a Nationals jersey yelled: “Hey Altuve, are you scared to play tonight?” Others screamed “you suck!” and “cheaters!”

About a half-dozen fans wore shirts that read “bang foul poles, not trash cans” in reference to Howie Kendrick‘s decisive home run for Washington in Game 7 of last year’s World Series.

First-year Houston manager Dusty Baker said he didn’t think the reception was “too bad” and said his team will have to get used to it.

“You’ll probably get the same reception most places you go, especially the first go-round,” he said. “So, you’ve just got to put your big-boy pants on and then just try to shut it out and just play baseball and realize this too shall pass.”

Washington ace Max Scherzer, who started Game 7 to help the Nationals to their first title, also started Saturday and pitched two scoreless innings. He was asked if he thought Saturday night’s game would be more dramatic considering what’s going on with the Astros.

“Maybe, I don’t know,” he said. “We won the World Series, so it wasn’t like I have a vendetta to hold. So, for me over here we’re just trying to move forward and get ready for our season.”

Scherzer was a bit disappointed that none of Houston’s starters played Saturday when he allowed one hit and struck out two.

“You want to face the best,” Scherzer said. “They’re a great lineup but I get it, it’s early in the spring you’re not going to see them.”

And while Silliman didn’t get to keep his signs, he said it wouldn’t stop him from heckling the Astros with his voice.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “They’re going to get it all.”

He didn’t have long. The game was delayed because of rain after two innings and canceled about 90 minutes later when rain continued.



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Jack Flaherty named Cardinals’ opening day starter

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JUPITER, Fla. — Jack Flaherty is getting the ball on opening day for the St. Louis Cardinals.

St. Louis manager Mike Shildt said Saturday the 24-year-old Flaherty will start the season opener March 26 at Cincinnati. It will be the right-hander’s first opening day start and comes after he finished fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting with a closing surge last season.

“It’s one of of those things you work for and you want it,” Flaherty said.

The nod comes one season after Flaherty pitched the home opener for the Cardinals.

“It’s cool,” Flaherty said. “Just happy I get the ball first, get the first chance to go out and kind of set the tone for the season.”

Shildt gave Flaherty the news on Friday, not a surprise after Flaherty went 11-8 with a 2.75 ERA last season. Seven of those wins came after the All-Star break, when he posted a 0.91 ERA.

He also started three games in the postseason, allowing four earned runs in 13 innings.

Flaherty started three games against the Reds last season, allowing only one run in 16 1/3 innings while earning two wins.

“It’s a nice accomplishment and it’s a well earned one,” Shildt said. “He was excited, but he took it in stride.”

Shortly after Shildt made his opening day announcement, Flaherty took the mound for the Cardinals’ Grapefruit League opener, a 2-0 victory over New York Mets in which he was awarded the win.

Working his scheduled two innings, Flaherty surrendered two hits and struck out three. He threw 20 of his 32 pitches for strikes. His fastball hit 95 mph on the stadium’s radar gun.

“Everything felt good,” Flaherty said. “It felt comfortable. I felt strong.”

Saturday also marked the Grapefruit League debut of left-handed Korean import Kwang-Hyun Kim, known to his teammates as “KK”. The offseason signee walked one and struck out two in a scoreless inning.

“I felt KK was good,” Shildt said. “Good slider. Located his fastball. Showed a little changeup. Nice outing for him.”

Kim is among the handful of pitchers vying for a spot in the Cardinals rotation. Adam Wainwright and Dakota Hudson will join Flaherty as starters. Miles Mikolas would have broken camp in the rotation, but a flexor tendon issue will force him to miss the opening weeks of the season.

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