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Brewers Jesus Aguilar tells story behind breakout year

Jesús Aguilar’s most important plate appearance of the season came on a Saturday night back in April. The Milwaukee Brewers first baseman has had plenty to enjoy since then, certainly: 35 home runs, an appearance in the All-Star Game, a year-long coming out party for his career. But before all of that, there was this, a sharp inflection point to set his season’s course.

It was Milwaukee’s 17th game of the year, a home contest against the hapless Miami Marlins. Aguilar wasn’t in the lineup, but there was nothing unusual about that. He wasn’t the starting first baseman; he was the second man on the depth chart, just as he’d been when he joined the club in 2017. Aguilar came to Milwaukee after nine years in the Cleveland Indians’ farm system, where he’d similarly struggled to carve out space for himself. He’d hit 68 Triple-A home runs from 2014 through 2016, more than any other player, but that felt like a damnation as much as an achievement. No one wants to spend enough time at Triple-A to be a multi-season leader in anything. Despite his minor-league slugging, he’d been offered only a few dozen major-league plate appearances, scattered across those three seasons. Any path forward had been blocked—by Nick Swisher, by Carlos Santana, by Mike Napoli—and he knew it wouldn’t clear up after Cleveland signed Edwin Encarnacion in January 2017. In February, Milwaukee claimed him off waivers, and he spent his first full major-league season enjoying some moderate success as a back-up to Eric Thames.  

But now it was April 21, 2018, and it was the bottom of the ninth inning. The Brewers and Marlins were tied. Aguilar had been called to the plate as a pinch-hitter, leading off the frame against reliever Junichi Tazawa. He laid off the first pitch, a high slow curve that was called for a strike. He whiffed on the second one—a violent swing-and-a-miss, whirling all the way around. He stepped out of the box, just for a moment. Then, at 0-2, Aguilar’s real work began.

“It was the most incredible battle,” he says, months later, still able to easily recall each pitch. He let the third one go, an easy take. At 1-2, he started doing whatever he could to stay alive. He fouled off the fourth pitch (fastball, inside), the fifth (slider, way outside), the sixth (splitter, back inside). He got a break with the seventh pitch, a clear ball. He fouled off the eighth and he took another ball for the ninth. The count was now full, nearly four and a half minutes after he’d first stepped into the box.

He fouled off a splitter, straight into the dirt. He fouled off a fastball, trapped by the netting behind home plate. He fouled off another fastball, past first base. He ran his hands once over his bat, tapped home plate, adjusted his helmet and jersey. The plate appearance had lasted almost seven minutes, and here was, about to see a thirteenth pitch. Tazawa threw it straight down the middle. Aguilar knew it was his, with a swing smooth and sure. He tossed his helmet as he finished rounding the bases, mobbed by his teammates—a walk-off shot, his first home run of the season, a battle of patience and strategy that he’d won in more ways than one.

Of course, there were many home runs to follow. With 35, he finished the season ranked fifth in the National League, an integral part of a squad that ultimately captured a division title and is now battling the Colorado Rockies in the NLDS.

“I can be a part of this team. I showed them that I’m ready,” Aguilar says of his mindset after that first home run. “My confidence went from here to here.” To demonstrate, he moves his hand from his knees to his forehead.

If that walk-off feels almost too convenient as a metaphor for Aguilar’s career—well, maybe it is, but it’s accurate. The 28-year-old’s story has been one of taking his time, doing what he can to stay alive, before finally emerging victorious. Signed as a teenager out of his native Venezuela, Aguilar had always flirted with the dreaded label of “Quad-A.” Good enough to hang around, but not good enough to count on any solid future. A bat-first guy, definitely, but maybe not with a strong enough bat. Everything that’s regularly applied to slow-bodied first basemen, high on raw power and low on consistent production.

Aguilar thought that he could be more than that. He just needed a chance.

“I was doing things the right way, and nothing happened,” he says of his time with Cleveland. “It was frustrating.”

He felt a new pressure to succeed when he became a father. His son, now three years old, changed his life. Shortly after his wife gave birth, Aguilar considered going to play overseas—where he’d be able to earn more for his family than he could in the minor leagues—but getting out of his contract ultimately proved too difficult. So he stuck with what he was doing, grinding away in Triple-A.

“He was an inspiration,” Aguilar says, about how his son motivated his game. “To show them that they were wrong.”

Every organization has a player like this, if not a dozen—the one that got away, whether because of roster construction or payroll constraints or simply poor timing. To a certain extent, it’s just the nature of the game, to say nothing of that of the Rule 5 Draft. Still, Cleveland’s loss became Milwaukee’s clear gain. In 2017, Aguilar posted an .837 OPS, earning a little less than a third of the team’s starts at first base and otherwise working off the bench. But he didn’t have a clearly defined role heading into spring training this year. Thames was the starting first baseman, and Ryan Braun and Travis Shaw could see time there, too. Aguilar was, again, fighting for time.

When Thames tore a ligament in his thumb at the end of April, requiring surgery, Aguilar had an opening. He made the most of it. Through the rest of the first half, he was electric—the team’s most productive player at the plate, with a .995 OPS. He cooled off in late summer, but he never gave up the first baseman’s job and still easily finished the year as Milwaukee’s second-best hitter, behind only MVP frontrunner Christian Yelich. He was the best that he’s ever been, in just about every single way: fewer groundballs, more consistent contact, better performance against righties. But he hasn’t made any specific changes to his approach, he says: “The only thing that’s changed here is my confidence.”

Almost half of Aguilar’s home runs this year came with two strikes—17, more than any other hitter in the National League—and his performance with two strikes is equal to that of the average hitter in any count. It’s where he thrives, and his mindset at the plate is one that he carries with him everywhere.   

“That’s what I try to do, stay positive,” Aguilar says. “It’s just like in 0-2. Just stay positive, just keep moving.”

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