OK, it's possible that the line in the Brewers' bullpen still forms behind Trevor Hoffman(notes), not Carlos Villanueva(notes). But the all-time saves leader currently has an ERA of 13.15, and he's been temporarily banned from pitching until he corrects mechanical flaws that he won't acknowledge.
With Hoffman exiled, Villanueva has served as the interim closer. He converted a save on Thursday, though he went 3-0 to the first batter he faced, then drilled the second. On Saturday, Villanueva blew a save chance against the Twins after his team had rallied for five runs in the ninth. His final stat wasn't as messy as it could have been — 2.0 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K — but he certainly hasn't put a stranglehold on the Milwaukee closing gig.
If Hoffman can't correct whatever it is that's wrong, the door could be open for John Axford(notes), a hard-throwing right-hander who's handled the eighth inning in recent days. Axford has allowed just one hit in five innings so far for the Brewers, and he's struck out seven.
Here's some recent propaganda via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
After watching too many games get away in the late going, the Brewers called up Axford from Class AAA Nashville last weekend. Unlike most of Milwaukee's pitchers, the lanky right-hander can throw hard, getting his fastball into the mid-90s with regularity.
"I was driving home last night and I said, 'We've got to get Axford in a game,'" said [Ken] Macha, who lives in the area. "He's got a little reputation for not throwing a whole lot of strikes, but with the few innings he's had here, it was time to get him in there.
"He pitched two great innings for us. He had an overpowering fastball and pretty good command of his breaking stuff."
The 27-year-old Axford had a 2.02 ERA and 19 Ks in 13.0 innings at Triple-A before the call-up. He's less than one percent-owned in Yahoo! leagues at the moment, but he should clearly be on the radar for those chasing saves.
Lefty Zach Braddock(notes) was also promoted from Nashville prior to Sunday's game at Minnesota. He has 28 Ks and a 1.19 WHIP in 16.0 innings at Triple-A this year. In 40.1 innings across two levels in 2009, Braddock delivered 62 strikeouts and only seven walks while posting remarkable ratios (1.79 ERA, 0.87 WHIP). Keep an eye on his debut, too.
Update, 5:45 pm CT: Villanueva threw 44 pitches on Saturday, so Axford got the call in the ninth on Sunday with a two-run lead … and it was an adventure. But a successful adventure. Orlando Hudson(notes) led off with a double, then Axford K'd both Justin Morneau(notes) and Michael Cuddyer(notes). A pair of singles followed, the first of them scoring Hudson. Jim Thome(notes) then drew a walk. Then, finally, Axford struck out Trevor Plouffe(notes) when there was no margin for error.
Perhaps the bigger news was that Hoffman reemerged in a set-up role. That's where you can expect to find him for the next few days; he's on probabtion. Hoffman pitched a perfect eighth in his 1,000th major league appearance, retiring Plouffe, Joe Mauer(notes) and Alexi Casilla(notes). The Hoff recorded his first hold since '94.
Photo via AP Images