MLB

K-Rod excelling as Brewers' setup man

John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
John Axford has been unstoppable as Brewers closer this season.
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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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So much for any fears that Francisco Rodriguez would resist setting up for the Brewers, and that John Axford would freak over the possibility of losing the closer’s role.

I thought both could happen.

I was wrong.

The Brewers are the hottest team in the majors, winners of 19 of their last 22 games as they prepare to visit the Mets at Citi Field (Saturday, MLB on Fox, 4:10 p.m. ET).

The bullpen, once the team’s biggest weakness, suddenly is a strength. And the professionalism of Axford and especially Rodriguez has helped make it all possible.

“I was told when I came here, I’m going to have an opportunity to close,” says K-Rod, who joined the Brewers in a trade from the Mets on July 12.

“Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten it. But we’re winning. That’s the bottom line — we’re winning ballgames. That has made it a lot easier for me.

“We’ve got a guy (Axford) throwing the ball extremely well. To interrupt that, to get between that . . . I’ve got to wait. He’s been fantastic. I’ve got to wait for my opportunity.”

The issue of whether Axford or K-Rod would close surfaced almost immediately after the trade, which was announced almost immediately after the All-Star Game.

Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said then, “We’re not going to get involved with roles at this time. When you’re a championship club, you need to have everyone pulling together.”

Well, yeah, in theory. But how often does it happen?

Eric Gagne famously melted when the Red Sox used him as a setup man after acquiring him from the Rangers in 2007. Other closers also have struggled with the transition to a less prominent role.

Heck, the day before the trade, K-Rod’s new agent, Scott Boras, had said Rodriguez was “not going anywhere to be a setup man . . . Closers don’t make good setup men. Does anyone want an unhappy setup man in their clubhouse?”

Seemed like a reasonable question at the time, but Boras was as wrong as I was.

K-Rod is happy. Axford is happy. And the Brewers might live happily after.

 



Melvin called Axford minutes after the trade and told him “not to get nervous.”

Interesting choice of words.

Axford, at the time, had converted 20 straight saves. He has now converted 33 straight. He was the one who should be nervous?

Well, sort of.

Axford, upon learning of the trade, says he was mostly excited. But he’s only human. K-Rod’s arrival sort of spooked him, too.

“Anytime you can get someone as good as him to help your team — especially in the one area where we needed improvement, the back end of our bullpen — it’s going to be a good thing,” Axford says.

“But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous for a couple of seconds. I knew I had done everything I could have done to maintain my job as closer. I was just going to go with what the coaching staff and GM wanted me to do.

“If they wanted me to pitch in the eighth, I would pitch in the eighth. If they wanted me to pitch in the ninth, I would pitch in the ninth. I knew there was no sense worrying about it. We got Frankie for one reason — to win ballgames.”

Axford, 28, is 60-for-65 in save chances (92.3 percent, third best in the majors) since becoming the Brewers’ closer on May 23, 2010. But he had a long, twisting path to success from his native Simcoe, Ont., and lacks the typical closer’s hubris.

Something else also gave Axford perspective: He took over the role in the middle of last season from the great Trevor Hoffman, who at the time was four saves shy of 600.

Hoffman did not complain when the change was made. He resolved to pitch better. He put the team first.

Former Brewers manager Ken Macha found Hoffman save opportunities later in the season, and on Sept. 7 the future Hall of Famer finally reached 600.

“A lot of what Trevor did was not even baseball-related. I feel he instilled a lot of his character in me, how to carry yourself on and off the field,” Axford says.

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“I wanted him to get 600. Everyone in Milwaukee wanted him to get 600. He certainly did, but he never said a word about it. Day in, day out, he supported me every step of the way. I didn’t know anything about closing.”

Axford is aware that Rodriguez was nine saves shy of 300, closing in on his own milestone. K-Rod isn’t in his final season like Hoffman was, but as a potential free agent, he, too, is at a sensitive stage in his career.

It stood to reason that the Brewers would find Rodriguez save opportunities, if only to ease the burden on Axford. But to this point, the team has not needed Rodriguez to close.

“We really haven’t had the opportunity; Axford hasn’t had to go four days in a row,” Melvin says. “K-Rod accepted it. I talked to him. I said, ‘I appreciate you accepting this.’ He said, ‘I’ll do whatever I have to do to help the team win.’

“He wishes he was closing. But he knows what he was brought here for.”

 



Rodriguez says he knew the Mets would trade him rather than risk paying his $17.5 million vesting option, but that he was “a little shocked” to go to the Brewers.

Shocked, then curious.

“What was going to happen to me?” Rodriguez recalled thinking. “I had to be patient, find out what the team was all about, try to fit in well.

“After a week, I felt so comfortable. Everyone made everything so easy for me. They opened the door, the clubhouse, for me. It was tremendous. I think I was blessed.”

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The Brewers are a loose, rollicking band of brothers — Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia loved being part of their clubhouse, and so did another highly respected veteran, Marlins outfielder Mike Cameron.

“We’re a pretty easygoing team, especially in the bullpen — we’re just a bunch of goofballs,” Axford says. “We like to have fun. He felt he was welcomed pretty quickly.”

But K-Rod still had to adjust to his new role.

“It was difficult. It was not easy at all,” Rodriguez says. “The preparation, everything is totally different. In the ninth inning, you know exactly when you’re going to pitch. In the setup role, you don’t.”

Rodriguez, though, has been even more effective for the Brewers than he was closing for the Mets, producing a 2.03 ERA, striking out 18 in 13 1/3 innings.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, in fact, has used K-Rod almost like an eighth-inning closer, summoning him to start the eighth in 12 of his 14 appearances. The Brewers led by three runs or less in nine of those games and were tied in the other three, according to STATS LLC.

“Everyone always says, ‘The last three outs are more difficult.’ They throw everything at you. It’s their last opportunity to score, to win a ballgame,” Axford says. “But in the eighth inning, it’s the same thing. They only have one more inning.

“It seems like he has grabbed a hold of his new role. He’s still electric. He’s still exciting. He gets just as excited as if he was closing a game.”

But again, it sure helps that the Brewers are winning.

After the trade, the Brewers and Rodriguez agreed to convert his vesting option into a mutual option that is essentially meaningless — K-Rod will decline his end, collect a $4 million buyout and become a free agent at the end of the season.

The market for closers will be crowded, but Rodriguez’s turn as a setup man should not diminish his value, especially if he extends his success into the postseason.

His stuff is good. He’s getting big outs in big games. And who knows? He still might get chances to close.

“If we were a .500 team right now or losing, if the closer was out there struggling and I was pitching well, of course that would make me irritated,” Rodriguez said. “But it’s the total opposite.”

Happy setup man. Happy closer. Happy team.

Tagged: Brewers, Yankees, Mets, CC Sabathia, Francisco Rodriguez, John Axford

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