John Axford could be the one man who means the difference in winning the National League Central. The Brewers' closer, who just two weeks ago had his job security seemingly challenged by Milwaukee's acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez, is emerging as baseball's most consistent closer. And with three teams separated by only 1.5 games for the NL Central lead, the 6-foot-5 Canadian with the trademark mustache and 97-mph fastball is providing the Brewers with the division's scarcest commodity: reliability.
In fact, Axford has quickly become the most reliable closer in Brewers history, converting a franchise-record 27 consecutive save opportunities. He's converted 30 of his 32 save attempts this season and hasn't blown a save since April 18. Axford's 24 saves last season set a Brewers rookie record, and since becoming Milwaukee's closer last May, Axford is 54-for-59 in save opportunities -- a percentage that ranks second in the majors behind only Heath Bell.
"Earlier in the year I felt my velocity was similar to that of last year ... if not a little bit lower," Axford told me via email. "But over the last three months the ball has just felt great coming out. I've really just been trying to use that to my advantage and pound the zone with that pitch. If I'm ahead in the count I can elevate or I can pound in or keep it on the outside corner. That can be dependent on what off-speed pitches I'm using as well. I think it's important to be confident and aggressive with your fastball ... the velocity only helps!"
A check of the pitch data reveals Axford's fastball numbers from his breakthrough rookie season of last year remain virtually unchanged. Axford does not throw a changeup, and with a four-seamer, two-seamer, slider and curveball repertoire, it's his breaking pitches that show the most dramatic results. The swing percentage on Axford's curveball is exactly the same as it was last season, 34.7 percent. However, the rate at which opposing hitters are swinging and missing his curve has doubled from 20 percent last season to 41 percent this year.
At the same time, Axford's slider has become a groundball pitch. Like his curveball, the swing percentage on the slider is exactly as it was last season, 47 percent, but hitters are putting the ball into play twice as often. Axford's groundball percentage is up to 54 percent. This is a pitcher who has surrendered only three home runs his entire career, and with 62 strikeouts in 49.1 innings this season, Axford is proving he can strike batters out and pitch to contact when needed.
"There was probably a stretch of about 10 games through June where all I used was 4-seam and curve," Axford wrote. "It worked so I stuck with it. When teams showed that they were adapting, I did too. I don't think I've thrown my slider this year as much as I did last year, so it might not be as sharp, but I'm still using it to keep hitters off balance and in moments where they may not be expecting it. If it's put in play and I'm getting outs with it ... I'm happy."
Was Axford happy on July 12 when the Brewers acquired Rodriguez from the Mets?
"My first reaction was excitement," Axford wrote. "I'd be lying if I said my second thought wasn't a little apprehension. But that immediately turned to excitement once again. Francisco didn't ask to be put in this position, and neither did I. I knew I did all I could have done to continue closing games so worrying about it initially was counterproductive. We were adding one of the best closers in the game and we did it because we want to win and that's my primary concern."
Rodriguez arrived in Milwaukee with 291 career saves, but has quickly become a perfect prelude to Axford's closing act. The Brewers are coming off a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Miller Park. In all three games, Rodriguez pitched the eighth inning and recorded a hold before Axford closed out the ninth for a save.
"Franky is an awesome competitor and it's been great to see his intensity in person," Axford wrote. "The last couple of innings, down there in the bullpen, you can see where his focus is. Outside of the game and in the clubhouse he's been great. He's been really opening up with us, and each day you can see his personality coming through more and more. I respect him immensely and am looking forward to closing out MANY more games with him this year."
In a divisional race as close as the NL Central, bullpens are often the deciding factor. Once Milwaukee added Rodriguez, St. Louis acquired starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, which pushed Kyle McClellan back to a relief role. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has been non-committal when discussing roles in his bullpen, where Fernando Salas rescued the closer's job from the wreckage of Ryan Franklin. Mark Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel were added as well, but St. Louis may still lack the dependability that the Milwaukee group of Axford, K-Rod, LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito provide. And in this division, where Pittsburgh is still unproven and consistency can be hard to come by, the Ax Man and his Brewers bullpen mates seem to have the edge.
Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.