On Sunday afternoon against the Chicago Cubs, Jim Henderson stepped onto the mound in the ninth inning and did what he does best—shutting down the opposition and ensuring the Brewers finish a close game with a win.
In the process of nailing down the Brewers seventh straight victory, Henderson may have also nailed down a more permanent stint as the team’s closer.
Since taking over for John Axford on April 8, Henderson has compiled four saves, a win and a minuscule ERA of 1.00. With this type of execution, it seems almost certain that the position of closer is his to lose.
If that isn't the current mentality amongst the Brewers brain trust, then fans may have to cough up some extra dollars to pay for a psychiatrist to examine Ron Roenicke and general manager Doug Melvin for temporary insanity.
Yes, Axford has looked better in recent days. However, the closer job in Milwaukee is no longer available. It’s been filled by another Canadian who has shown a much stingier approach toward giving up the long ball. The newest Brewer closer from Canada has given up a total of zero home runs thus far in 2013.
Of course, there’s the possibility that Henderson could stumble at some point in the season. And if that potential skid lasts more than a couple days there might be an opportunity for Axford to try out again for the position.
As of now, however, there's a "no vacancy" sign on the mound after the eighth inning. That's Henderson Time.
The twist is that the emergence of Henderson vis-a-vis Axford’s failure actually puts the entire team in a better position. Axford has pitched very well in a variety situations since his demotion. In the process, Axford has for the time being resolved a fairly large problem that plagued the Brewers during the 2012 campaign: They had one of the worst bullpens in the league.
The current arrangement—with Axford pitching situationally and Henderson closing—has improved the overall quality of the team. Instead of having instability in their closing role, the Brewers now have a solid closer and another quality reliever to turn to after their starters depart the game. Not a bad situation when it’s all said and done.
Being competitive is the ultimate goal, not stubbornly sticking with the notion that one player must fill a certain role.
Early after benching Axford, Roenicke expressed a belief that the closer's job would be Axford's to win back once he had regained his form:
I told (Axford) I want him to be our closer, and how we think is the best way to get him back in that role, which is pretty much what we did with him last year (in the middle of the season). We’ll put him back in wherever it’s going to be, sixth (inning), seventh, maybe eighth, and let him get his stuff back. Once he gets his stuff back, we’ll put him back in that role again. (via Tom Haudricourt at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
Hopefully, the team's recent success has led Roenicke to adopt a more flexible mindset. The Brewers are playing well with their current approach to pitching roles. Why change it?
Maybe Axford’s struggles late in tight games has less to do with his “stuff” and more to do with his ability to cope with high levels of stress. If this was Axford’s first skid that would be one thing. But the late-inning meltdowns by Axford are like a recurring nightmare for Brewer fans. I heard one fan at a recent game refer to Axford as the “ghost of Turnbow.”
It doesn’t take a Ph.D in baseball strategy to see that the best course of action might simply be the one that works, as opposed to reverting to something that wasn't.
Having fought back from a 2-8 hole early in the season, the Brewers are now 9-8. Most of the positive results have come under the current alignment of pitching resources.
There's no doubt team officials have observed the improved results. We can only hope they stick with an effective strategy rather than trying to fix something that’s no longer broken.