MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Brewers’ hopes of making the playoffs for a fifth straight season depend at least in part on whether Christian Yelich can return to form.
Yelich took a step toward that goal on Monday night. The 2018 NL MVP belted a grand slam for his first homer of the season in Milwaukee’s 6-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“You’re just trying to have good at-bats and hit the ball hard,” said Yelich, who also doubled and walked. “You feel like that’s what you can kind of control up there. Once you hit it, it’s kind of out of your control, you know? There’s been good days, bad days and in-between days. You just try to string as many good ones as you can.”
Yelich’s two-out slam capped a five-run rally off Pirates starter Zach Thompson (0-1) in the fourth inning. The 429-foot blast was Yelich’s fourth career grand slam.
“That’s a fun thing to see, isn’t it?” Brewers pitcher Eric Lauer said. “It’s fun to watch him kind of see him in that zone again and watch Yeli be Yeli. That’s what everybody’s used to seeing and that’s what we expect out of him. I think there’s only more to come.”
Yelich has struggled the last two seasons after leading the league in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS during each of his first two years in Milwaukee.
He batted .248 and homered nine times in 475 plate appearances last year after hitting .205 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
“There’s no question we need him to reach our goals,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He’s doing everything he can every day to try to get there and try to be that productive hitter he knows he’s capable of.”
Yelich’s slam was enough support for Lauer (1-0), who gave up one run and five hits in six innings while striking out five and walking one.
Pittsburgh got its only run in the fourth on rookie Diego Castillo’s first career homer, which came one pitch after Castillo swung at a slider from Lauer that hit him in the knee.
Milwaukee’s Jandel Gustave, Hoby Milner and José Ureña each pitched one inning of scoreless relief.
The game was tied 1-1 when Milwaukee’s Omar Narváez singled to center and Lorenzo Cain hit a deep fly that bounced off the glove of right fielder Cole Tucker for a double.
“I was playing in and it got me back by the wall,” Tucker said. “I just did everything I could to try to get it and it, like, bounced up off the end of my glove.”
Kolten Wong’s sacrifice fly brought home Narváez. After Willy Adames walked, the left-handed Yelich sent an 86 mph changeup off the right-handed Thompson into the second deck of the right-field stands.
“In hindsight, we should have brought in (left-hander Dillon) Peters there,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “We tried to get (Thompson) through. He got in a little bit of a groove, lost his arm slot a little bit and it just didn’t work out.”
Thompson struck out five but allowed six runs, six hits and four walks in four innings.
Pirates hitting coach Andy Haines, who had the same job with the Brewers from 2019-21, was back in Milwaukee for the first time since the Brewers fired him.
Milwaukee scored six runs during its four-game NL Division Series loss to the Atlanta Braves. The team then became one of 17 in the majors to change hitting coaches.
“It’s a lot to process because you’re so invested,” Haines said before the game. “I just know how much of a responsibility I felt to the players, to the organization. To all of a sudden not be a part of it, there’s emotions that you have to process.”
Haines said he was surprised by the decision but still respects Counsell and Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns.
“I also told them I accept it,” Haines said. “I don’t agree with it. I’m not going to concede that. I wouldn’t have a chance to be good at this job if I did, to be honest. That’s the reality of it, too. It doesn’t change how much I respect them. It actually probably would have made it easier if I didn’t respect them so much, their decision-making ability, to be honest.”
Pirates RHP Luis Oviedo (sprained right ankle) was reinstated from the injured list and optioned to Double-A Altoona after completing his rehabilitation assignment.
JT Brubaker (0-1, 9.82 ERA) starts for the Pirates and Corbin Burnes (0-0, 2.25) pitches for the Brewers on Tuesday night.
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