K-Rod walks tightrope to save finale for Axford

K-Rod walks tightrope to save finale for Axford

K-Rod walks tightrope to save finale for Axford
MILWAUKEE -- This was not just a moral victory for deposed Brewers closer John Axford, it was an actual victory.

For the man who replaced him, it was just another heart-stopping save.

In his first outing since being bumped from ninth-inning duties, Axford recorded four outs in the fifth and sixth and finished as the pitcher of record after Francisco Rodriguez stranded the bases full of Cardinals for a 4-3 Brewers win at Miller Park on Wednesday.

Milwaukee took the series, two games to one and pulled to within three games of .500 (44-47) for the first time since May 12. The Brewers have won or split five consecutive series.

But for the second straight day, Rodriguez made things interesting.

Really, really, interesting.

"It was more heart-pounding sitting in the dugout than it was out there on the mound," Axford said. "I've been in those situations before. I was definitely rooting for Frankie to get the job done, and it looks like he's bringing that mojo that we need back -- get ourselves into trouble and somehow get ourselves out of it.

"That's what I had all last year, and hopefully he's bringing that back to the ninth inning now."

Rodriguez has a knack for that. On Tuesday, he faced the tying runner at third base with nobody out but escaped with a 3-2 win. On Wednesday, pitching for the fourth straight day and the fifth time in six days, he surrendered a double and three walks, one to David Freese that forced home a run and moved the tying runner -- again -- to third base.

Again, Rodriguez escaped. He retired Lance Berkman on a dangerously deep fly ball to left field, where Nyjer Morgan fought the sun to make a game-ending catch.

"I just don't have any bat speed right now," said Berkman, who is four games removed from the disabled list and knee surgery. "That ball that I hit in the ninth, that's a grand slam. That ball's hit well enough on the bat that I feel like if I have my normal bat speed, it goes out of the ballpark. But I don't, and it died on the warning track."

The result was Rodriguez's 294th career save. Asked whether he was tired, Rodriguez smiled.

"That was enough," he admitted.

"That's five out of six days for him," manager Ron Roenicke said, "and he was up [in the bullpen] the sixth day. So, I've put a lot on him. I'm sure he's about worn out."

Good news: The Brewers are off Thursday before a big weekend series in Cincinnati against the National League Central-leading Reds.

The Brewers scored all of their runs in a four-run first that included three Cardinals errors, two charged to shortstop Rafael Furcal and another to first baseman Berkman, who fell to the turf after catching Furcal's wild throw and inadvertently flipped the baseball to the middle of the infield while the second of two gift-wrapped runs scored.

The miscues meant only one of the four Brewers runs in the inning were charged as earned against Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, who was otherwise outstanding over seven innings. After allowing two hits in the first, including Corey Hart's two-run single, Wainwright allowed only two more hits and no more runs through the seventh, striking out nine batters along the way versus no walks.

"I'm real impressed with how Adam kept his composure and just got better as he went," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "I thought that was one of his best outings if you knock out that first inning, and he could have been out of that a couple times."

The damage was done. Young Brewers starter Tyler Thornburg, pitching in place of Zack Greinke, surrendered a pair of solo home runs over 4 2/3 innings and teamed with relievers Axford, Manny Parra, Jose Veras and Rodriguez to win the game.

The win was Axford's third this season. He struck out Berkman to end the fifth inning and worked around a harmless single in a scoreless sixth. Axford's successful 1 1/3-inning stint marked the earliest he had pitched in a game since Oct. 1, 2009 -- his sixth Major League appearance.

"I felt good," said Axford, who lost his closer role after suffering his sixth blown save on Monday night. "I just tried to escape everything that happened before. Obviously, a short-term memory is a good thing. I tried to work fast and not let anything have an opportunity to creep into my head."

It was strange pitching in the fifth inning. In fact, Axford didn't realize he might be the pitcher of record until Brewers left-hander Randy Wolf told him.

"I got to see a sausage race from the dugout for the first time," Axford said. "It was interesting. They actually go a lot faster than you think."

Thornburg needed help after throwing 103 pitches in 4 2/3 innings, a heavy workload considering he had started only two games and appeared in three since being ejected in his final start for Double-A Huntsville on May 9. He had not thrown more than 99 pitches in any of his previous 15 starts this season, including a 93-pitch Major League debut against the Blue Jays on June 19.

Thornburg surrendered two runs on solo homers. Seven home runs have accounted for all eight opponents' runs against Thornburg in his three Major League appearances.

"What's happening is, there is a difference when you're behind in the count in the Minor Leagues and you're behind in the count here," Roenicke said. "These guys don't miss a good fastball. I'm sure when he was in Double-A, Triple-A, he could throw the ball by guys."

Thornburg will probably return to the bullpen, because Greinke is expected to be rested and ready to rejoin the rotation next week.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.