MINNEAPOLIS – In the top of the ninth, it was hard not to look.
No, not at Matt Capps’ attempt to preserve a 3-3 tie. Not at the batters stepping to the plate, not even when Martin Maldonado drove a two-run shot to center field.
When Maldonado’s home run landed in the Brewers’ bullpen, most eyes were already there. The sign above lit up with two names: Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.
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Would Ron Roenicke make good on his pregame claims? Would Axford come into the game after blowing two consecutive saves for the first time in his career?
The Brewers got the third out.
The bullpen door opened.
We squinted and hypothesized. Socks up? Long hair trailing behind him? Yes, yes.
It was John Axford’s game to save.
At 10:07 p.m. was a 93-mph. fastball. Four pitches later and Denard Span was gone, the casualty of a short fly ball. Two more, and Ben Revere was trudging back to the clubhouse. Four more, and Joe Mauer ended it all. It took 10 pitches, six strikes and five minutes.
John Axford needed those five minutes. The Brewers needed them, too.
“It was big,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “The last two days can hurt a team, and it can hurt the guy that’s out there closing. So all that was very important today.”
Forty-two days ago, Axford was perfect. Forty-two days ago, he clinched his 49th consecutive save. Forty-two days ago, he was the Brewers’ steadiest force. And that’s why two blown saves can make five minutes on the mound seem like life or death, because so many questions and worries can be forced upon a pitcher who even a week ago was solid.
So yes, Axford got the save. But really, that shouldn’t be so surprising. What’s more notable is that he got the chance at all, that in this year where closers have gone to crumble Roenicke had the faith to make that phone call to the bullpen.
“I want to be there as many times as possible, because then we’re always winning, right?” Axford said. “I didn’t get it done last night, so I definitely wanted to be out there again. I’m just glad the third time it worked out.”
It was the third shot for Axford, but for the Brewers, Friday was opportunity number four to win a close game in its final inning. On Tuesday, Rodriguez gave up three hits and one run in the eighth inning, earning the loss. Wednesday and Thursday, it was Axford in the ninth who fell short, but each night, stagnant offenses could also shoulder some of the blame. So far in June, the Brewers’ closers have gotten 2.8 runs in support. It’s hard to accuse the relievers when they have so slim of a margin each night.
And though it might have been nice to storm into Target Field and bury the Twins with 10 runs in the first inning, that would have proved so little. It would have done nothing to chip away at the Brewers’ struggles in close games – they’re 13-17 in games decided by two or fewer runs – or reassure the team that its bullpen could hold a lead.
The problem isn’t just losing. It’s how they’ve been losing.
Friday night affirmed more than simply that the Brewers can win. It proved that they can win the games that they lost each night in Kansas City. It proved that the team can function like it did last season, with solid starts and lockdown relief. It was about John Axford, but only as the final chain of a reaction that used to work so well.
“I think it’s very important for our relievers, those guys that are coming in there, to come in to do what we did today,” Roenicke said. “Because that was a lot of our success last year, was those guys coming in after a great start, putting up the zeros and then letting us get to Frankie and Ax.”
It wasn’t perfect, but it never is. That’s baseball, Yovanni Gallardo was quick to point out. Some nights you have it. Others you don’t. It’s just more noticeable when Axford doesn’t. He’s still 11 for 14 in save opportunities, far from perfect but still nowhere near collapse. Friday night wasn’t a cure-all; his velocity was still up, and he averaged 92 mph. on his 10 pitches. But it’s the kind of performance that silences the criticism. Forgetting comes as quickly as panic.
With that final out, Axford had to feel relieved. He’d done it so many nights before though, 81 times, so this was far from a cause to celebrate, at least for him individually.
“It was really good to have a clean inning, you know,” Axford said.
There’s that relief. But he kept going.
“…And finish that losing streak, especially the three tough ones that we had. To finally pick up a win, and such a clutch win, too, was a great team effort today.”
Because it’s not his streak that matters. It’s the team’s, and that’s not so easily overcome.