MILWAUKEE - One day after his worst outing in a difficult season, Canadian John Axford lost his job as the Milwaukee Brewers' closer.
Manager Ron Roenicke said before Tuesday night's game against St. Louis that Francisco Rodriguez will be handling ninth-inning duties while Axford, from Simcoe, Ont., tries to get his confidence back in lower-pressure situations.
"It's always difficult when you're talking about a guy that we feel the way we do about Ax," Roenicke said. "We still remember what he did last year for us. So yeah, it's always hard to do. But it is the right thing to do, so I didn't feel bad about doing it. I felt good about doing it, because I feel like this is the best way to get him back."
Handed a two-run lead against the Cardinals on Monday night, Axford allowed three runs in the ninth inning and the Brewers lost 3-2. Axford has 16 saves in 22 chances this season, struggling to find the dominant form he showed in 2011.
"It was a decision I kind of expected after yesterday, yesterday's performance," Axford said. "It's frustrating the way things have been going this year, so maybe it'll be a breath of fresh air to step back a little bit, try and get back into the swing of things the way I was last year."
Axford said he wasn't surprised by the decision and didn't try to talk Roenicke out of it because he wanted to put the team first. And Axford acknowledged that his recent struggles have shaken his confidence.
"I'd be lying if I said it was the same as it's always been," Axford said. "Today was actually one of the rougher days I've ever had. Generally, I'm pretty good about letting go after blown saves or losses or anything like that. But yesterday, just because I couldn't feel anything — I literally, as I told (pitching coach Rick) Kranitz, it literally seemed like I was pitching with new mechanics and never threw a curveball before."
Axford played a critical role in the Brewers' run to the NL championship series last season, saving 46 games in 48 chances. Axford had 49 consecutive saves between April 24, 2011 and May 4, 2012 — the fourth-longest streak in history.
But Axford has struggled since then, and his control issues were at their worst in Monday night's meltdown.
"He was at a point where he was really frustrated," Roenicke said. "He said that was the worst he has felt on the mound as far as having a feeling where the ball's going. With the fastball or the breaking ball, he had no idea where it was going."
Rodriguez, who has 292 career saves, has been primarily an eighth-inning setup man since coming to the Brewers in a trade last season. He is 2-4 with a 3.67 ERA this season with one save — April 10 at Chicago. He has not allowed a run in his past five appearances.
Roenicke said Rodriguez's fastball has been "really good," while he's still trying to throw his slider as consistently as he has in the past.
And Rodriguez knows how to close.
"It's certainly what he wants to do," Roenicke said. "And he is — he's a closer. He's a great closer. I think Frankie's such a professional that whether I have him setting up or whether I have him closing, he knows how important he is to our team to win."
While the Brewers scramble to try to get back into contention, Roenicke doesn't want Axford to be seen as a scapegoat.
"I didn't think about it that way, and I don't want him to think about it that way," Roenicke said. "Because he's not. That's not all that's going on with us. We've been inconsistent with every phase of the game. So it's a little part of it we need to fix, and we've got a great guy to try to fix it with."