Shaky relief getting worrisome in Milwaukee

With the single-season saves record holder and the pitcher responsible for the fourth-longest consecutive saves streak in baseball history anchoring your bullpen, there shouldn’t be much to worry about in the eighth and ninth innings.

That certainly was the case in Milwaukee in 2011, as Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford looked like one of the best late-game pitching duos in baseball. Axford possessed a 1.95 ERA with 46 saves. Rodriguez had even lower ERA at 1.86. Both had a rate of strikeouts per nine innings over 10.

But this season, things have been notably less reliable in the game’s final six outs. Axford’s ERA has bloated to 4.94 as his consecutive saves streak went by the wayside. Rodriguez’s time in the eighth inning have been similarly erratic, with a 4.34 ERA. Both have a WHIP in the 1.500-range.

And on Tuesday and Wednesday night, both close losses to the Royals, those struggles were at perhaps their worst point yet.

On Tuesday, Rodriguez turned a solid seven-inning effort from Zack Greinke into a 2-1 Royals lead after his command struggles continued. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said before Wednesday’s game that his off-speed pitches haven’t been the same this season.

And Wednesday, after Rodriguez bounced back with a hold in the eighth inning, Axford melted down. First, he threw seven balls in eight pitches, walking Eric Hosmer after getting Billy Butler to ground out. He walked Mike Moustakas with balls on four of five pitches. That left Alcides Escobar at the plate with a 2-1 count, as Axford hung a pitch over the plate that Escobar blasted to left center field. The triple scored two runs, officially blowing what should have been the first Brewers’ win of the series in Kansas City.

A frustrated Axford couldn’t explain the recent loss of command.

“I don’t really know what’s going on with my fastball,” Axford said. “My fastball is generally always straight, so I don’t know what my hand is doing at the end for it to be doing that.”

The Brewers closer is no stranger to struggles, but he noted after Wednesday’s game that this recent string of less-than-stellar play has been particularly frustrating.

“I’ve been here before,” Axford said. “It just kind of sucks because it’s June and this is happening, instead of maybe April. … Right now, honestly, it’s kind of embarrassing on my part because I don’t know what’s going on. I’m better than this. It’s just not going my way.”

It’s true, nothing about Axford or Rodriguez’s inconsistencies has been easily explained this season. But with the eighth and the ninth innings less consistent, the Brewers’ offensive deficiencies have hurt them more in the win column as of late.

And those frustrations mounted in the first two games against Kansas City. The stress that had seemingly faded from Roenicke’s face in the past two weeks returned as he issued a challenge to his team after Wednesday’s loss.

“Somebody out there needs to step up and start throwing the ball,” Roenicke said. “Nobody down there is throwing the way they should be throwing. …

“What we’re doing now, nothing is going to go our way the way we’re playing. … I have confidence in these guys, but they need to start doing it.”

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