Some would call what happened to the Milwaukee Brewers Thursday afternoon poetic justice. Some would just call it a straight-up kick to the gut.
The Brewers entered the bottom of the ninth inning leading the Cincinnati Reds 1-0 after a collective masterpiece from Wily Peralta, Brandon Kintzler, Francisco Rodriguez and Jim Henderson. Milwaukee was on the verge of drawing within three games of the second wild card and St. Louis Cardinals with six games to play.
In came Brewers' closer John Axford, who hadn't blown a save since Aug. 10. If you think that should ease the mind, think again.
In the top half of the inning, the Brewers had runners on the corners with two outs and Martin Maldonado at the plate. He put together what was the best at-bat of the game, at least up until this point. You could tell how important it was to him for Milwaukee to tack on an insurance run or two. After drawing a full count, Maldonado lined out to left, and from there, it was all on Axford.
After striking out the first two hitters, Axford looked to be in command and on his way to his ninth consecutive save. Up stepped Todd Frazier, who was 1-for-12 with eight strikeouts in the series. Well, at least he was before he faced Axford.
Naturally, Axford grooved a first-pitch fastball right down the pipe, Frazier went yard, and two batters later, the Reds were walking off with a 2-1 victory.
Now, Milwaukee stands half a game behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second wild-card spot, but more importantly, its chance at a postseason berth is all but over.
And Axford largely is responsible.
For a guy who had only blown five saves in 76 chances in the previous three seasons, Axford blew nine saves this year and gave up at least a run in 22 games, the most among MLB closers. His ERA jumped from 1.95 in 2011 to 4.88 in 2012; nearly a three-run increase.
It's a two-part answer. Thursday afternoon, we saw firsthand that Axford is vulnerable to giving up the big fly. Frazier's home run was the tenth allowed by Axford this season, which is unacceptable for a closer.
Axford has to be aware that when he enters a game, the opposition is going to be swinging for the fences, especially when it's a one-run game.
Location was a big issue this season for Axford, and the fact of the matter is, the league figured him out. This was Axford's third season as the full-time closer, and even for a short stretch in August, he was relieved of his closing duties by Brewers manager Ron Roenicke in favor of Jim Henderson.
Perhaps it should have stayed that way.
Axford throws a straight fastball that can reach upwards of 99 miles-per-hour, but it is normally in the 95-to-97 range. As long as that pitch is out over the plate, hitters are going to jump on it. His slider is filthy when it's on, but this season, that has been a big "if."
The Ax Man's blown save against the Reds was the Brewers' season in a nutshell, and quite frankly, it was the final straw. Axford was a ringleader in eliminating the Brewers twice: First in August, then again Thursday afternoon. Not only did he help create the Brewers' playoff bubble, but he popped it, as well.
It wasn't all Axford. K-Rod blew seven saves of his own this season, and all-in-all, Milwaukee's bullpen threw away 29 leads. I'm no baseball historian, but I don't believe too many teams have reached the playoffs with that lousy of a bullpen.
To have a chance at reaching the playoffs, you usually need three of the following: A good starting rotation, a good bullpen, a good defense and a good offense. It can be argued the Brewers had three of these calling cards.
Heck, they even ranked in the top five in fielding percentage in the National League. Who could have seen that coming?
But the bullpen was just too much to overcome, and Brewers' fans deserve better than John Axford in the ninth inning. Plenty of others proved their worth in the bullpen toward the end of the season, and my personal selection as Axford's replacement in 2013 would be Jim Henderson.
The 29-year-old rookie is already a great story, just like Axford, posting a 3.04 ERA and 13 holds since being called up at the end of July. He did have three blown saves of his own, although the Brewers went on to win two of those games.
Similarly to Axford, Henderson has a plus fastball that can rise into the high 90's along with a solid breaking ball. He would be an adequate option to close out games for a season or two until the league figures him out.
Excuse my pessimism, but Axford and the Milwaukee bullpen was so horrendous this season. It prevented the Brewers from a deserved spot in the postseason; there is no way around it.
It looks like a winning record is all that's left to play for, unless by some miracle, the Brewers reel off six straight wins and the Cardinals lose at least four of their final six.
Such a possibility is unlikely, and we have John Axford in large part to thank. It's time for the Brewers to go in a different direction with the closer's role.
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