MILWAUKEE — A baseball team has many moving parts and most of them have to be working in unison for a team to win seven consecutive games and, oh by the way, save its season.
In going from the despair of a 2-8 start to the euphoria of a winning record in eight short days, the short-handed Milwaukee Brewers needed — and got — contributions from every corner of the dugout.
The Brewers’ rapid recovery featured timely home runs, hitting from the bottom of the order, regular quality starts and a little help from the opposition, especially the error-prone Chicago Cubs. But series sweeps over San Francisco and Chicago wouldn’t have been possible without the bullpen recovering in stunning fashion from the meltdown it suffered at the start of the season.
Closer John Axford was the focal point of that implosion, but the problem ran much deeper than Axford as almost every relief pitcher not named Jim Henderson took some lumps. But Axford, Tom Gorzelanny and Henderson were dominant in finishing off a 4-2 victory over the Cubs on Sunday at Miller Park, capping off a homestand that saw the relievers do everything except solidify their roles in the mind of manager Ron Roenicke.
Yes, that means Roenicke still hasn’t handed the ninth inning to Henderson on a permanent basis, that he still hopes Axford can regain his closer’s role. But roles aside, the bullpen has emerged as a team strength during the winning streak.
“This is really good stuff lately,” Roenicke said.
Really good might be an understatement. Aided immeasurably by the starters going deeper into games, the bullpen was 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA and four saves in the last nine games. Opposing batters hit .174 against Brewers relievers during that time.
General manager Doug Melvin signed some well-credentialed veterans during the offseason, and Gorzelanny, Mike Gonzalez and Burke Badenhop have pitched well after struggling early. Brandon Kintzler, who threw well for Milwaukee in September, has picked up where he left off. And while Henderson has taken hold of the closer’s role at least temporarily, Axford has regained his footing as well.
“We got off to a slow start, but we’re all pitching well,” Gorzelanny said. “That’s what we’re here to do is hold the win down and give us an opportunity to stay in the game with our offense. We have the capabilities to do that, we have the guys to do that, we have the arms to do that. Everybody’s good enough to be a really good bullpen in this league and we’ve been showing it really well here lately.”
With more left-handers — Gorzelanny and Gonzalez — than last year and more relievers who can retire both right-handed and left-handed hitters, Roenicke suddenly has some flexibility. Not that he wants it. He’s still trying to define roles in the bullpen.
Ideally, Roenicke would like two guys for the seventh inning, two for the eighth and one for the ninth. It might surprise some that he hasn’t declared Henderson his closer, but Roenicke made it clear Sunday that he will give Axford every chance to close again, especially now that he’s squared himself away pitching in less stressful situations.
“I still think ... I would like to get Ax back in the closing role,” Roenicke said. “Maybe we’ll move him back to (the) eighth (inning) first and see how we do (with Axford and Henderson) eight-nine. But whatever combination we go eight-nine, those two are what I would like to have right now. Then we’ll see how we work it out, who goes where, as the season goes on.”
Henderson converted his fourth save opportunity Sunday with an overpowering ninth inning. Another late-season call-up last year, he appears to be gaining confidence by the game.
“Whether he’s in the eighth or the ninth, I feel really confident that he’s going to throw strikes. He’s going to get the fastball over the plate and mix in the slider enough to where they can’t just sit fastball,” Roenicke said. “He’s doing a great job.”
After giving up nine runs in his first four outings, Axford has allowed none in his last four. In a save-like situation in the seventh inning Sunday, he came in with two out and two on and retired David DeJesus on a fly ball.
“I’ve been throwing the ball a lot better and doing my job better on the mound,” Axford said. “Sometimes you don’t want to mess with something that’s not broken. Right now, Jim’s been doing a fantastic job and I think the way he’s been going, you just want to keep going with it. You don’t want to mess with a good thing.”
If this is potentially a touchy situation, you couldn’t tell it by Henderson’s reaction to Axford’s recovery.
“He’s throwing the ball great,” Henderson said. “But whatever happens, happens. I’m happy just doing my job whenever the phone rings for me.”
These days, so is the entire bullpen.