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Jesus Aguilar: Improbable, yet inevitable

MILWAUKEE – On Wednesday night, Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar won Major League Baseball’s Final Vote and claimed a spot on the National League All-Star team. He became the fourth Brewer named an All-Star and undoubtedly took the most improbable path of all of them.

Against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, Aguilar hit his 22nd home run of the season, one of the 23 that secured his All-Star spot. The high-arcing home run tied Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper for the NL lead.

The home run came on a high-and-tight 96-mile-per-hour fastball from Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Evan Phillips. He executed his pitch. It was out of the zone. Right where he wanted it, yet Aguilar turned on it and shot it off the face of the second-level overhang in left field for a two-run home run that sealed the Brewers’ 10-1 victory.

“The ball was right here,” Brewers first baseman Eric Thames said, pointing to a spot just inches away from his chest. “He's just so strong. I mean, get 300 pounds behind the ball and it goes.”

It was the perfect summation of Aguilar, a player whose success is improbable, yet seemingly inevitable at the exact same time.

Aguilar spent the first eight years of his career in the Cleveland Indians’ minor-league system. During the better part of a decade, he smacked 140 home runs, but never found success when called up to the major league squad. It felt like it was only a matter of time with the hulking first baseman, but that time never came. He never found his moment and thus couldn’t remove the dreaded “Quadruple A” label.

In the spring of 2017, the Indians designated him for assignment and the Brewers picked him up. With a great performance during Spring Training, he made the Major League roster, but watched from the dugout as another Brewers first baseman burst onto the scene. With 11 home runs in the first month of the season, Thames staked his claim as the Brewers everyday first baseman and held on to it for the rest of the season, despite some second-half struggles.

Occasional injuries, starts against left-handed pitchers, and a Thames second-half slump allowed Aguilar to stick around and keep himself on the roster throughout the season. He popped at times as a pinch-hitter and showed off his power when given the opportunity with 16 home runs on the season, but still seemed more of a platoon bat than everyday starter.

To start the 2018 season, Thames went off again, hitting seven home runs in his first 17 games before ultimately being forced to miss more than a month with a thumb injury. With Thames out, Aguilar took over at first base and made a major impact.

Since Thames hit the disabled list on April 25, Aguilar has hit 22 of his 23 home runs, a tally which now leads the National League. On the season, he has compiled the National League’s best slugging percentage (.631) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.000)

“Look, he’s having an MVP season,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He really is. He’s having an incredible season."

Improbably, he’s hit 12 of his 23 home runs with two strikes. In a two-strike count, the odds have flipped against him as a hitter, but at the moment, it feels like Aguilar will find a way when he gets behind in the count.

In the seventh inning or later with the Brewers within one run, tied, or ahead one run, Aguilar is hitting .390 with a 1.093 OPS and three home runs. When the Brewers need it most, he somehow manages to deliver.

At every turn, there seems to be a battle between improbability and inevitability with Aguilar, but for now, everything has shifted to the side of inevitability. If Aguilar comes to the plate in a big moment, his teammates feel as though he will come through, like he did by tying the game in the eighth inning on Wednesday night with a two-run double, and they intend to keep it that way.

“We're just trying to keep Aggie loose,” Thames said. “Once you start to get tight, once you start to put pressure on yourself, that's when you start doing bad. And that's what I did last year. Aggie’s doing a great job. Our chemistry is great. Our guys are having fun and we're winning.”

For now, it’s all coming pretty easy for Aguilar, something he could never have imagined one year ago.