Axford will close at least some games
MILWAUKEE — For as long as Brewers manager Ron Roenicke could, he stuck with John Axford as the team's closer despite the obvious struggles that had plagued the reliever's first two months of the season.
As Axford's frustrations deteriorated his confidence, though, Roenicke finally decided to make a change to Francisco Rodriguez, who had legitimate experience in the ninth inning and four All-Star bids to prove his worth as a closer.
But after Rodriguez was the primary cause of a horrendous bullpen meltdown in two of three games in Philadelphia earlier this week — he gave up five hits, four walks and six runs in just 1 1/3 innings — Roenicke said on Thursday that he will move forward without a concrete plan at closer, instead opting to go for a closer-by-committee approach.
"We're going to go with whatever we see in the game and who fits that slot," Roenicke said. "Unfortunately, it's come to that. I'd probably rather have a set bullpen, but we're going to match it and see how we do that way."
Roenicke said the reps at closer may not be limited to just Axford or Rodriguez, and he even mentioned veteran long reliever Livan Hernandez as a legitimate candidate for some ninth-inning action. Hernandez tallied the first save of his 19-year career earlier this season with the Atlanta Braves.
"I don't know if there's just two guys," Roenicke said. "Two obvious, but hey, if we get in a situation and Livo is matching up well, I'll bring in Livo. I know one thing about him: He isn't going to be bothered by what's the circumstance, he's going to throw strikes … he's going to attack the hitters. I'm OK with that."
Axford said before the game that he assumed Rodriguez would be the closer and hadn't gotten any indication otherwise. But it's apparent that Axford's last few outings have impressed Roenicke.
Since being demoted, Axford has yet to allow a run and has struck out five batters in 5 1/3 innings. The former Brewers closer said being put in lower-pressure situations helped his psyche a great deal, allowing him to get back to "Square 1" and focus on one batter at a time, instead of worrying about the gravity of the situation around him. That approach led to success that "felt incredible" in Philadelphia — "something I haven't felt almost all year," he said.
"I feel like I'm taking the right steps, that's for sure," Axford said. "Mentally, everything feels the same as where it was last year. … I'm not going to make that decision, obviously. That's going to be up to the manager. But I feel fantastic and I think we'll just see how it goes from there."
Roenicke echoed the same sentiment, mentioning that Axford's bounce-back performances came much quicker than he expected. It was a classic case of a different role allowing a pitcher to get back to "just pitching and not worrying".
"He's actually been good in every outing since we took him out of the closer role," Roenicke said. "I really like what I see from him. We'll see how the games go."
A return to the closer spot for Axford could mean a return to the eighth inning for Rodriguez, who had made it clear earlier this month that he felt he deserved a chance to be the Brewers' closer. But after the series in Philadelphia, that chance may have slipped away — at least for now.
Still, without any indication of his future as the team's closer, Rodriguez reiterated on Thursday that he had no other choice but to put his dismal performance in Philadelphia behind him.
"It's frustrating all the way, disappointing more than anything," Rodriguez said. "But that was yesterday. Today is a new day. We're looking to take a step forward now and leave all of that behind."
But with six straight losses in part due to bullpen struggles, the Brewers will try to take a step forward against the Nationals this weekend with a very unclear path ahead of them in the ninth inning.
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