ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.: 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 — such as setup man Cody Allen — the team will go with a closer-by-committee approach.
“We basically have a group of four guys in Atch [Scott Atchison], [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 depend a lot on the situation, given that 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 have 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 nontendered him after the season, he signed a one-year deal worth $4.5 million with the Indians during the winter.
After starting the season with four consecutive saves, Axford blew his first save, but then converted five saves in a row before beginning to struggle during his past four outings. He has nine saves in 11 opportunities, but has 15 strikeouts and 13 walks in 14⅔ innings.
He blew a save against the Chicago White Sox, walking two and giving up a three-run homer in a 4-3 loss on Sunday, then gave up another homer the next night in the ninth inning of a 1-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins.
The final straw came Friday night in Tampa Bay, when Francona turned to Axford in another nonsave situation in the ninth with the Indians leading the Rays 6-2. Axford (1-3, 4.91 ERA) struck out the first two hitters, 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 also picked up his first save of the season.
After the game, Axford said he felt a bit fatigued throwing so much in the past three tough outings.
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 to make the move.
“We stayed around last night for a while and talked,” Francona said. “Then got here early today. I wanted to do some thinking last night, didn’t want to react last night … So when Ax got here today, we talked with him and told him, ‘hey man, for now, we’re going to 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 want to put a Band-Aid on it. I want him to where when he gets it, he takes it and stays there.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com.