Struggling John Axford is out as the Indians closer for now, but a replacement for him at this point won’t come in the form of another anointed closer.
Instead of moving another back-end reliever into the ninth-inning role permanently – such as Cody Allen, the Tribe’s reliable shutdown eighth-inning man - the club will go with a closer-by-committee approach.
“We basically have a group of four guys in (Scott) Atch(ison), (Bryan) Shaw, Cody and Zep (Marc Rzepczynski) who throw those innings late in the game,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “They’re going to continue to pitch those innings.”
Francona said who he’ll turn to in the ninth will include Allen, but will depend a lot on the situation because he believes his late-inning relievers are just as important at saving games at a crucial point from the seventh inning on.
“Because of their willingness to be able to pitch whenever and get outs, we can do that,” Francona said. “The one thing I assured them is that whoever’s pitching, we’re not going to anyone warming up because we think you’re good.”
Axford began the 2013 season as the Milwaukee Brewers closer, but similar struggles cost him that job. But after the Brewers traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals, Axford began to find his footing again. When the Cardinals non-tendered him after the season, he signed a one-year deal worth $4.5 million with the Indians over the winter.
After a solid start to the season, Axford (who has nine saves in 11 opportunities but has issued 13 walks to 15 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings) has struggled mightily over his last four outings, costing the Tribe back-to-back loses to the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins.
But the final straw came Friday night in Tampa Bay when Francona turned to the right-hander in another non-save situation in the ninth with the Indians leading the Rays 6-2. Axford quickly got the first two outs via strikeouts, then suddenly lost his command.
The Rays mounted a rally that included two doubles, two walks and a run scored before Allen came on to quell the bases-loaded threat. Allen not only preserved the win, but picked up his first save of the season as well. Yet, before Saturday’s game, Allen was in no hurry to move over into the closer’s role fulltime.
“We’re a really good bullpen when Ax is closing,” Allen said. “We have so many guys who can do different things and that helps us win games. A lot of games are won or lost in the sixth through the eighth inning in the transition from the starter to the bullpen. So we have good arms able to pitch there and John, who has loads of experience, closing out games.”
After Friday’s game, Axford said he felt a bit fatigued throwing so much recently. Although it was obvious the team was going to need to make a move, Francona didn’t want to make a rash decision late Friday night “based on emotion”. Instead, he met and talked with members of the coaching staff and front office before making the mutual decision Saturday to make the move.
“We stayed around last night for awhile and talked,” Francona said. “Then got here early today. I wanted to do some thinking last night, didn’t wan to react last night…So when Ax got here today, we talked with him and told him, ‘hey man, for now, we’re gonna kind of get you out of that role and try to get you some situations where we can get (you) on a roll again.’
“The goal is to get him back as our closer, and I think he understands that. Now, I don’t want to do it in two days, because I don’t wan to put a band-aid on it. I want him to where when he gets it, he take it and stay there.”
How long that takes is anybody’s guess.
"I've thrown a lot recently,” Axford said after Friday’s game. “You can only throw 25-30 pitches so many times in an inning before it start to catch up to you. I just need that clean, quick, one-two-three inning and get back on it.”