MILWAUKEE — It was apparent the moment John Axford began his conversation with reporters Monday night that something was different this time.
For the Milwaukee Brewers closer who has struggled on so many occasions this season (his ERA ballooned to over 5.00 and his WHIP rose to over 1.50), this night presented a much more complex set of frustrations.
He had inexcusably walked two batters and put Matt Holliday at the plate with the bases loaded, almost beckoning him to knock in the game-tying runs. He was trying too hard, that much was certain, and as he walked off the field having blown his sixth save of the season, he did his best not to hang his head as boos rained down on him from his own fans. He claimed after the game that he didn’t hear the boos, but as superhuman as John Axford may have seemed at times — especially last season — there’s no doubting those boos meant something.
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Axford has spent a great deal of this season explaining that his struggles haven’t affected his confidence. After all, this is the closer who saved 49 consecutive games in 2011 and the beginning of 2012. But his face on Monday night told a completely different story — a story of a pitcher who didn’t know what was wrong or how to fix it.
“In all honesty, I couldn’t feel anything,” Axford said. “It was the most awful outing I’ve had all year.”
No position in the major leagues relies on confidence more than a closer. And with the bevy of one-run games the Brewers have found themselves in, confidence — from Axford and the manager who has to rely on him in the ninth inning of a tight game — is even more important than usual.
There was no confidence in Axford’s body language as he fought to keep the Brewers in Monday’s ninth inning, and there was even less as he addressed the media after the game. And for that reason, the Brewers had no choice but to make a change.
It’s a move that had to rank among the toughest of the season for manager Ron Roenicke, considering how important Axford was to the team’s resurgence last season. Axford will get a chance to redeem himself — Roenicke said Wednesday that “in a perfect world” Axford would be closing again by the end of the season. He is still very much a part of the team’s long-term plans — as he should be. But for now, a closer without confidence is a liability Milwaukee can’t afford in such a crucial stretch.
And that’s exactly why Francisco Rodriguez provides possibly the best replacement option in the major leagues. He oozes confidence.
When asked Sunday whether he had acclimated to his role as a setup man — one held for the Brewers for a full calendar year since the team acquired him from the Mets last July — he showed some of that confidence and bite firsthand.
“I’m a closer,” Rodriguez clarified. “My mentality is as a closer. I’ve been a closer my whole career. I’ve been a setup man for one year. Don’t tell me that I’m a setup. I’m waiting for my opportunity. When that time comes, I’ll be ready for it.”
And he was on Tuesday night, after the Brewers handed him the job he had yearned for. After allowing the Cardinals to get runners on the corners with no outs in the ninth inning, Rodriguez was as ready as any closer could be. He induced a ground ball that kept David Freese at bay on third base. He struck out Skip Schumaker. And he forced a pop fly to end the game.
One slight difference in that ending, and the Brewers might be second-guessing their change after Tuesday night’s game. But Rodriguez’s confidence is what helped him get out of a jam he created — racking up his 293rd career save — and it’s exactly what’s going to help Milwaukee start a renaissance in its struggling bullpen. At least, that’s what Roenicke hopes.
Rodriguez is not without his flaws. He’s battled on several occasions this year with inconsistent command. And his frustrations have been palpable on multiple occasions this season. But the Brewers’ bullpen, more than anything, needs one guy to take the lead and help the others feel like they don’t need to press. They need confidence and swagger, and who better to provide it than a guy who holds the majors’ single-season record for saves?
“Somebody has to do it,” Roenicke said in regard to a leader emerging in the bullpen.
And on Tuesday night, as Francisco Rodriguez threw his hands up into the air out of raw emotion, celebrating a performance that — on any other day — may have been a blown save, it was obvious that he is Milwaukee’s best hope to reignite the bullpen.