MILWAUKEE — During his time with the Milwaukee Brewers, John Axford has had the chance to watch two of the more successful closers in baseball history.
When Axford first arrived in the big leagues, Trevor Hoffman was there to take him under his wing. With the exclusion of the first month of this season, Francisco Rodriguez has shared the back end of Milwaukee’s bullpen with Axford since July of 2011.
Milwaukee sent Rodriguez to Baltimore on Tuesday in exchange for minor league third baseman Nick Delmonico, setting off a chain of emotions in the clubhouse where Rodriguez was respected by many.
“I’m definitely going to miss Frankie a lot,” Axford said. “I don’t think it’s really a coincidence that since he’s been on the team, I’ve thrown my best. He’s helped me a lot this year, he’s helped me a lot in the past. I’m definitely going to remember the last few years, especially the shutdown season we had in 2011 in that second half, and the ups and downs we had last year, but the support that we had for each other last year, as well. The support that he had this year for me even when he wasn’t on the team. It was just a bonus when he got here that I was able to talk to him in person rather than just through text.”
Axford and Rodriguez went from a dominant set-up man and closer duo in 2011 to trading the job as closer due to struggles in 2012. In a bizarre coincidence, the two were either both pitching well or both struggling in their time together with the Brewers.
When Axford struggled in the first four games of 2013, Rodriguez reached out to him from the Dominican Republic where he was hoping a team would take a chance on him.
The Brewers did give Rodriguez another shot and called him up to the big leagues on May 15, one day after Axford blew a save in Pittsburgh. After Rodriguez joined the team, Axford went on a run of 23 straight scoreless outings and has allowed just one earned run in a set-up role.
Rodriguez grasped the job as closer and was a perfect 10-for-10 in save opportunities this season, including earning his 300th career save on June 22.
“He’s just a tremendous supporter,” Axford said. “He’s been through the grind. He knows the mindset of being in the backend of the bullpen there. That’s something he’s helped me out with since he’s been on this team going back to 2011.
“He’s always the kind of person that wants to tell you to stick to your guns and stick to what you can do and what you can believe in. That’s the way he’s always taken his job, and that’s the way he always pitches. That’s the way he goes about his business and that’s the way he wants to help you, as well.”
Rodriguez wasn’t all smiles on his way out of the clubhouse Tuesday. He was happy pitching for the Brewers and wasn’t looking to leave. He was grateful to the Brewers organization for giving him a chance when nobody else would, something he said he’ll always keep in the back of his mind.
But on the other side of things, Rodriguez is back pitching in a pennant race with the Orioles. With scouts lining the seats of Miller Park on a daily basis to watch Milwaukee’s bullpen arms, Axford has many suitors after him, as well.
“I know Frankie enjoyed the clubhouse here, he liked the atmosphere, he liked the city, and he was comfortable,” Axford said. “But that’s the way baseball is. It changes a lot, and it has certainly changed a lot for him over the years. He’ll adapt, and I’m sure he’ll be ready.”
Though he hadn’t been told anything yet, Axford is always mentally prepared to get another chance as the team’s closer. As Rodriguez vacates the job, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke still has Axford, Jim Henderson and Michael Gonzalez with closing experience.
“I think we may try to flip-flop some with Henderson and Axford in that role and try to match it up some,” Roenicke said. “Frankie was doing an awesome job for us. That’s going to be tough on that bullpen to miss him.”