MILWAUKEE — After a record season as the Milwaukee Brewers closer in 2011, an inconsistent 2012 has cost John Axford his ninth-inning role.
Manager Ron Roenicke announced Tuesday that Francisco Rodriguez will replace the closer who had a string of 49 consecutive successful saves broken in early May.
“Frankie is going to close right now,” Roenicke said. “Ax, we’re going to put him where we think he’s got a chance to get his rhythm back … his confidence back. I don’t want to say an inning. … It could be sixth, could be seventh, could be eighth.
“Confidence-wise, stuff-wise, if it’s a mechanical issue, (pitching coach) Rick (Kranitz) and him will work on it.”
The bold move comes on the heels of what may have been Axford’s worst performance of the season — Monday’s ninth-inning meltdown against the St. Louis Cardinals, which blew a two-run lead with two walks and three runs. With a win, the Brewers would have been in good position to take the first two series of their important three-series stretch against NL Central teams. But Axford’s sixth blown save of the season cost Milwaukee at a time when it desperately needed to gain ground in the division standings.
Axford told reporters Tuesday that, after Monday’s performance, he expected the team to make a change.
“It’s frustrating the way things have been going this year,” he said. “So maybe it will be a breath of fresh air to step back a little bit and try to get back into the swing of things, the way I was last year.”
Axford’s struggles weren’t limited to Monday; he has battled mightily to command both his fastball and breaking ball all season. Axford owns the fourth-longest consecutive saves streak in MLB history, but wasn’t able to save four games in a row this season. He also has the worst ERA (5.35) and WHIP (1.568) of his four-year career.
Still, it was just one year ago that Axford’s ninth inning was among the most consistent in the game. He tied for the NL lead in saves with 46 and had the third-best ERA of any closer in baseball — behind only New York’s Mariano Rivera and Pittsburgh’s Joel Hanrahan.
This season, his confidence has clearly been shaken. The fan favorite walked off the field at Miller Park on Monday night to myriad boos.
“It’s not an arm issue,” Roenicke said. “I think the mental part messes up the mechanics, and I think that’s what’s going on.”
To fix the confidence issues, Roenicke said he’d do his best to put Axford in low-pressure situations. He also said that he doesn’t expect Axford, 29, will fix the issues with bullpen sessions.
As for his replacement, Roenicke seemed confident the team wouldn’t miss a beat.
“The fortunate thing is, we have another closer,” Roenicke said. “We’re very fortunate to have that.”
Rodriguez told FOXSportsWisconsin.com on Monday that he still thought of himself as a closer and hoped that he would get an opportunity to be in that role sooner rather than later. Now, he’ll get that chance.
But even Rodriguez admitted that he didn’t want to be named closer in the fashion that he was on Tuesday.
“Well, it was good, but at the same time, it was bad,” Rodriguez said. “I cannot be happy especially with the situation that we’re going through right now. I didn’t want to get the job in this way. … So hopefuilly we can step up and get it done and make a run.”
With a 3.67 ERA this season — the second-highest season mark of his career — Rodriguez has also fought through his fair share of command problems. But his improvement has been immense over his last few outings. The Brewers’ new closer, who has been a setup man since he was acquired at the All-Star break in 2011, had given up just one hit and zero runs in his last five outings going into Tuesday night’s game.
That’s when Rodriguez found himself in a compromising situation, just two batters into his reign as closer. After two Cardinals’ hits put runners on the corners, Rodriguez looked as though he might be the second closer in two days to cause a late-inning collapse.
But after inducing a groundball straight to shortstop Cesar Izturis, keeping David Freese at third base, Rodriguez struck out Cardinals pinch hitter Skip Schumaker, as the Miller Park fans gave him a standing ovation. One pop fly later, and Rodriguez had earned a save in his first attempt as Milwaukee’s new closer.
“I’ve seen him do it a lot,” Roenicke said of Rodriguez’s stressful ninth-inning performance. “He can get out of some situations with great pitches.”
Rodriguez, 30, made his reputation in the major leagues as a closer for the majority of his 11-year career. He still holds the record for most saves in a season (62) — a feat he achieved in 2008 with the Angels, while Roenicke was a coach on that staff.
The change in closers is the first true movement seen in a bullpen that has massively underachieved in 2012. It’s a weakness Roenicke didn’t see coming when the season began.
“I thought we were going to be really good in our bullpen,” Roenicke said. “Coming out of spring training, looking at how we performed last year, adding (Jose) Veras to that mix, getting Manny (Parra) back, we thought we were going to be really good.”
Now, the Brewers hope to improve with a new man on the mound with the game on the line. But, in light of the recent change, Roenicke made it clear Axford is still in the team’s long-term plans. Assuming he can solve the issues that have plagued him through half of the 2012 season, Axford should be the team’s closer at some point in the future.
“We’ve been inconsistent in every phase of the game,” Roenicke said. “It’s a little part that we need to fix, and we’ve got a great guy to try and fix it with. And hopefully (Axford)’s here for a long time doing the closing.”