Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Brewers Season Falls Under Axe

It's not been a good season for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Things got worse Monday night.

The Brewers have actually done a pretty admirable job of fighting off injuries -- Alex Gonzalez, Mat Gamel, Shaun Marcum headlining -- and underperforming players -- hello to Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Randy Wolf, John Axford, and probably Francisco Rodriguez here -- to stay at least somewhat alive in the National League Central.

In fact, the Brewers were in position Monday to get within three games of .500 for the first time since they were 15-18 on May 12. Locked in a pitcher's duel with the Cardinals, Brewers starter Mike Fiers -- a hell of a find so far -- held St. Louis off the board for seven innings, permitting just four hits. A Corey Hart home run gave Milwaukee the lead going into the eighth, and Ryan Braun added to the lead with an RBI double in the eighth.

Handed a 2-0 lead, though, Axford struggled, blew the lead, and may have delivered the dagger to the Brewers' hopes.

After an unbelievable 2011 season, Axford hasn't been the same this year. Monday was a microcosm of his season to this point.

He couldn't locate any of his pitches, including his lethal curveball that was such a key to his run last year. His fastball was hitting at 97 on the gun, but it was all over the place. He looks like a pitcher missing his confidence, and at this point, it's hard to blame him.

Naturally, however, the prideful Canadian wasn't about to admit it.

Asked whether he was confident he'd remain the Brewers' ninth-inning option, Axford said, "That's up to the manager. Am I confident that I'll go out and get the job done? Yes. Hopefully, I will get that opportunity again."

Axford has held that role since he took over for a struggling Trevor Hoffman in 2010, and he parlayed that learning experience into the best season by a closer in Brewers history; only two blown saves in 48 chances in 2011. This season, Axford already has five blown saves in 21 chances.

Last year he walked 25 batters in 73 2/3 innings. This year, Axford has walked 21 batters in 37 innings. 

He also found room to call out the upset Miller Park patrons, people sick of seeing him unable to control any of his pitches.

Brewers fans, many of whom wear T-shirts to Miller Park depicting Axford's famous mustache, voiced their displeasure with boos.

"I'm in the position where it's kind of, 'What have you done for me lately?' " Axford said. "Fans are going to feel the way they feel. We're in a race right here, we're trying to win some ballgames and we're not winning right now. ... If I'm not doing the job, they can say whatever they want." 

Naturally, he had to throw in the "What have you done for me lately?" shot. It's about as tired as watching Axford throw first-pitch ball after first-pitch ball (six hitters faced Monday, zero first-pitch strikes).

No matter how good his stuff is, Axford isn't good enough to constantly get behind hitters and have any success.

The Brewers say they will evaluate the closer situation. There is no evaluating to do. Axford has blown five of 21 save chances, and he has run out of chances. It's time for Ron Roenicke to stop sticking with his guy and make the right move.

No, Francisco Rodriguez hasn't been lights out this season. But after a terrible start to the season, he's shown better control lately, and his numbers have pretty consistently improved. He also has nearly 300 career saves, and he has been a good soldier for the last year as a setup man.

If nothing else, K-Rod has earned at least a short-term opportunity to close games, while Axford works his tail off to figure out why he's lost control of all his pitches.

The Brewers might not be able to salvage anything from this season, but they should at least pretend to try, and keeping Axford as the closer isn't an example of that.

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