MILWAUKEE — John Axford was tired and frustrated, but he knew what came next.
He had always been transparent with the media, welcoming interviews that came to his locker near the front of the Milwaukee Brewers clubhouse. But lately, the questions had grown tiresome. He knew he had to face up to the struggles he and the rest of his bullpen had dealt with, problems he’d already had to own up to several times this season. But after losing his closer job, the meetings with the media had gotten admittedly agonizing.
With microphones and recorders in his face, Axford was noticeably frustrated. He had run out of words to explain his struggles or the struggles of his fellow relievers.
“It’s tough to describe what’s happening, especially after the run we had last year,” Axford said on July 29, confounded by the same questions. “We can’t explain it. … Last year, when things were going great, they just kept going that way. If someone stepped in a hole, we pulled them right out of it. We picked everyone up. Everybody picked each other up down there. Right now, it seems like if someone steps in that hole, we’re just digging it even deeper for them and we’re all jumping in. It’s not really working out.
“For me personally, it’s almost beyond words now. It’s inexplicable. It’s ridiculous. It comes down to one pitch, but that one pitch completely changed the outcome of the game.”
The reporters would leave eventually, but Axford would be left with the questions. What was wrong with him? What was wrong with the bullpen? Was this ever going to to get better?
“I don’t know how many more times I can say the same words over again,” Axford said, just two weeks later.
Those moments of facing up to his own mistakes — they’re the only moments John Axford thinks of now, over a month later. He’s given up just two hits in his last 10 appearances. The bullpen has accounted for just one loss since Aug. 15. He doesn’t think about those long, difficult nights on the mound anymore.
It was all a part of the process. He’s wiped those games from his mind, and so have the rest of the relievers. They don’t like to talk about that period of frustration — not now, not while the bullpen has been the backbone of Milwaukee’s run toward playoff contention.
“Whatever happened earlier in the season, it’s done and over with,” Axford said on Friday. “You can’t look back. You can’t reflect on it anymore. It’s about pushing forward.”
Axford was the one to make the first push. As the team’s closer — even if he wasn’t at the time — his spot is one of natural leadership. He wanted and needed to set an example. He wanted and needed his job back.
So he went to the office of Brewers manager Ron Roenicke and said he wanted to be the team’s closer again. He explained that he was ready, and soon, Roenicke agreed. Both of them wanted to move forward.
“When I went in to talk to Ron and we had our conversation, I said I wanted to get back to being the closer and solidify the bullpen and help close some of the craziness that was going on out there,” Axford said. “I just wanted to look forward. There was nothing more to look back upon or to think about earlier in the season. This has all been about looking forward.”
After a crushing slump in the middle of the season, the effect the Brewers’ bullpen struggles had on the team’s record has been somewhat erased. Milwaukee is back in the thick of the wild-card race.
But it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened to Milwaukee’s season if the bullpen had held up like it did in 2011, when Milwaukee relievers combined for the fifth-best bullpen ERA in the league, with a closer that was on an historic consecutive saves pace.
Axford knows this season has been different — not exactly in a way the team or its fans would have hoped for.
But he won’t change anything. He won’t relive or reflect quite yet, but he knows he’s been changed by the struggle and frustration he dealt with in the middle of the season.
“I think personally I just have a little extra pride knowing that I could get back to where I was and where I feel like I could be,” Axford said. “Getting into this game was never easy for me. It was always a struggle. I always needed to work on something or get an opportunity from somebody just to get a shot. I wasn’t going to just lay down by any means. I fought to get here, and I was going to fight to stay. And that’s been the biggest thing for me is that I realized I still have that fight and that determination and that grit to stay in this game and take the role that I grabbed a hold of a couple years ago.”
That meeting with Roenicke would spark something else, too. The bullpen saw what Axford had done and the confidence he’d shown in taking a lead role.
“We’ve all struggled, and like he said, it was good to hear it in himself, out of his own mouth, that he was confident to get back out there and take the ninth inning,” reliever Jim Henderson said. “That showed confidence in him, and it rubbed off on us. It was, ‘Oh, well he’s going to get the job done in the ninth, so we have to do our part.’ He led the way there.”
Henderson was at Triple-A Nashville when the struggles started. But with bullpen coach Stan Kyles fired on his second day at the major league level, Henderson saw the team’s struggles at their worst — as an outsider looking in.
So it was even easier for him to see it change, and as he spent more and more time with his fellow relievers, he understood why they needed to let that stretch of their season disappear from their consciousness.
“We don’t think about it,” Henderson said. “We don’t talk about it. … There’s a lot of confidence in everybody right now. We’re not worried about it at all.”
Added Roenicke: “Whatever they’ve been doing it’s been working. If we can continue to do that, we’re going to be in close games, and any time they can hold on and put up zeroes, we’ve got a chance.”
Axford smiled as he was reminded of those moments by the same media that had hounded him earlier in the season. He won’t play the “What if?” game. In a position that requires so much confidence, he won’t reflect much on his weaker moments.
And now, neither will his manager. He’s been realistic through the process, looking forward at all times — an attitude that his closer and bullpen have learned to live by in the past month.
“I can’t think that way,” Roenicke said. “It’s a long season. You’re going to go through where your offense doesn’t hit, your defense is going to be bad, your pitching is going to be bad, and that’s part of the season. That’s why you play so many games. Nobody is going to be good for in all of those for the whole season.”
Axford knows that firsthand now, and the change is palpable as he calmly sits in his chair next to his locker and talks freely. He’s flown a bit more under the radar lately, and after the constant questions the plagued the middle of his season, he can get used to the quiet. He knows now that it’s all been for a purpose.
“Somehow, maybe this kind of season needed to happen, to a certain degree,” Axford said. “It really helped me kind of discover the pitcher that I am and help me realize what I was capable of and that I could falter but also step back in and become the guy that I was last year.”