Let me establish up front that I generally root for underdog closers. I like getting saves for little or no cost. I'm perfectly fine to ask "why not?" on nondescript pitchers when others say "why bother?"
The Axman has the facial hair preferred for a closing job – we've known that all along – and he's currently got possession of the ninth inning in Milwaukee. Most importantly Axford is now 8-for-8 on save conversions, including Tuesday's handshake at the end of a 7-5 victory over Houston. At first glance it seems like an open-and-shut case: surprise reliever makes good, let's just ride it out until the end of the year.
Alas, Axford's conversions don't look all that tidy if you look at them closely, and we still have to wonder about Trevor Hoffman(notes), looming in the background and buoyed by the chase for 600 saves.
Most of Axford's save chances have been cushy ninth-inning assignments – he's only had to protect a single-run lead in one instance. That's a good thing, because he's been scored on in four of his eight save conversions. Axford's allowed 11 hits and four walks in these save chances and he's only had one perfect inning; the Astros had two hits and a walk before Axford finally put them away Tuesday. I'm not a smoker, but if I were a Brewers fan, this 2010 season would be pushing me to start. (Hoffman's opening six weeks qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.)
Axford also has 13 whiffs over this eight-game sample – there's no denying that he has swing-and-miss stuff. But can he consistently throw enough strikes to be effective in this role? Control was his constant bugaboo in the minors. And will the Brewers eventually consider giving some occasional ninth-inning chippies to Hoffman, who's just four shy of the 600-save mark? Hoffman has rallied nicely over seven consecutive scoreless appearances, allowing just four baserunners and striking out six. He hasn't allowed a homer since May 18.
Bottom line, I'm a realist. While I'm intrigued with the Axford story and I've got him working on a couple of clubs, it's hard for me to think that the Brewers aren't going to give Hoffman another chance; my gut feel tells me it's just a matter of when that happens. Milwaukee is still seven games under .500 and it's hard to see this team getting in the thick of a playoff push. I'll be surprised if we don't see Hoffman back in the ninth at some point, and with that in mind, we might want to prepare for that likely flip before it happens and the player values change in the marketplace. Now's a good time to quietly explore the trade market for Axford, and I still like Hoffman as an add-and-stash option in medium and deeper leagues.
Don't throw tomatoes if you disagree – this is just my opinion, and as always, it's made far away from the dugout. My cell phone rings every day, but it's never Ken Macha on the line. And if The Axman Saveth for another three months, I won't complain one bit.
• Hanley Ramirez's(notes) ground-ball spike has been a concern this year, but he didn't have any problems getting this pitch airborne – and over the fence – against the Mets. Ramirez has also been running more this month, a good sign that he's fully healthy. Perhaps we'll see a Ramirez bounce now that he's away from Fredi Gonzalez.
• Maybe there's a pitcher more erratic than Dontrelle Willis(notes) right now, but I can't think of who it is. This guy should be wearing 22/7 on the back of his jersey, because there's nothing repeatable in his mechanics. The catcher holds up a target on every pitch, sure, but it's just wishful thinking.
Willis lasted longer than he should have at St. Louis on Tuesday, getting the hook in the middle of the fifth. The Cardinals got him for seven hits, six runs and six walks over four-plus innings, and Albert Pujols(notes) hit a couple of homers off the struggling lefty. The damage could have been a lot worse – the Cardinals left the bases loaded in the first, ran into a pair of outs in the third and fourth, and wasted an out on a sacrifice bunt following two obscenely-wild walks from Willis (one against pitcher Adam Wainwright(notes), who was willing to bunt but didn't have to).
Eventually the Diamondbacks will accept reality on Willis – there's no quick fix here, and maybe there's nothing worth fixing at all – but they've got another problem with manager A.J. Hinch. The Snakes hired Hinch despite the fact that he had no managerial experience, and he's still making a lot of curious decisions that hurt his club (I discussed some of them via Twitter on Tuesday night). The Arizona management has to think long and hard about a complete overhaul this winter, and I expect the Diamondbacks to consider trading away some major pieces when the trading season heats up in 2-4 weeks.
• Coco Crisp's(notes) ownership level barely registers on the Yahoo! radar these days, and it's time to fix that. The Breakfast Cereal/Outfielder is off to a zesty 10-for-23 start since rejoining the Athletics a week ago, with four walks and three steals. He's parked in the leadoff spot and obviously getting the green light on the bases, so what's not to like here? Kick the tires and let's see if this story goes anywhere.
• Wade LeBlanc(notes) is basically a soft tosser in the middle of the San Diego rotation, but he somehow picked up eight strikeouts against Colorado on Tuesday. LeBlanc also had to settle for a loss, despite a workable final line (6.1 IP, 2 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 1 HR). You'll want to consider him for Sunday's turn against Houston.
Injury Blog: Manny Ramirez(notes) tweaked his hamstring while running the bases at San Francisco on Tuesday and had to leave the game. We'll see what we learn when the team re-evaluates Manny on Wednesday. He was going to get the day off to begin with – you know the Manny rules, skip daytime action whenever possible – but the hamstring issue cements that decision. I'm not bullish on this guy for the second half, healthy or not. … David Freese's(notes) ankle hasn't healed quickly, so he's on the DL and Felipe Lopez(notes) gets to step into a regular job. Lopez had three runs scored and four hits in the laugher over Arizona. … Carl Crawford(notes) (shoulder) was back at it Tuesday, collecting four hits and a steal at Boston. … Todd Helton(notes) still has a cranky back and didn't play at San Diego. … J.J. Hardy(notes) (wrist) is ready to start a rehab assignment on Wednesday. … Dallas Braden(notes) is dealing with a sore elbow and couldn't make his scheduled turn at Baltimore on Tuesday. … Rich Harden(notes) (left gluteal muscle strain) will have another bullpen session on Wednesday and the club is hoping he'll be ready for the third week of July. … Magglio Ordonez(notes) (side) got back to work, going 0-for-3 at Minnesota.
Speed Round: Huston Street(notes) worked a perfect inning at San Diego, with two strikeouts, and looks ready to run with the Colorado closing gig. … Jimmy Rollins(notes) batted third for the Phillies and will probably stick in that spot while Chase Utley(notes) is out of the lineup. … What is it with Joe Torre and Matt Kemp(notes)? The LA skipper had Kemp on the bench for the third straight game Tuesday, though Kemp was forced into action when Manny got hurt. … Kerry Wood(notes) keeps laughing at the doubters (me included); he recorded his third save in as many days on Tuesday, working a perfect inning against Toronto. … Wainwright worked 6.1 scoreless innings and now has 23 straight quality starts at home, a league record. He'll stay in St. Louis and face Yovani Gallardo(notes) on Sunday afternoon.
Jonathan Lucroy(notes) still has a solid .290 average and he whacked his second homer of the year Tuesday. … The Rays finally pulled the plug on Hank Blalock(notes), designating him for assignment. Blalock's .319 OBP and .349 slugging didn't feed the cat. … Ronald Belisario(notes) got the second LA rogue save in as many days, recording the final out at San Francisco. Justin Miller(notes) had the first crack at the chippie, but he was removed after allowing a Pat Burrell(notes) homer and an Edgar Renteria(notes) single (sandwiched around two outs). … Some guys just seem to own certain teams: Denard Span's(notes) got a career .403 average against Detroit (he had four hits against them Tuesday, including three triples), while James Shields(notes) hates pitching at Fenway Park (1-7 record, 7.71 ERA, another loss Tuesday). … Feel free to discuss the amazing Cliff Lee(notes), or any other fantasy story of interest, in the comments.