MILWAUKEE -- For four consecutive batters, Brewers closer John Axford was one strike away from what would have been his 17th save. He was one strike from gutting through a night he had zero feel for his fastball and even less for his curveball, from taking another step past his first-half struggles and from pushing the Brewers another step closer to the trio of teams they trail in the National League Central.All four times, Axford couldn't get to Strike 3. "I let it go," he said. "That's all there is to it." Axford surrendered two costly walks, three well-placed hits and three crushing runs in the ninth inning of the Brewers' 3-2 loss to the Cardinals at Miller Park on Monday. It marked a sour start to a crucial three-game series, and left Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke and pitching coach Rick Kranitz examining the closer's role. "We talk about it all the time. We talked about it just now," Roenicke said. "We will again [Tuesday]." Cardinals All-Star Matt Holliday delivered a tying, two-run, seeing-eye single to right field and Allen Craig won the game with a soft single to left. Cardinals closer Jason Motte notched the win. Axford took the loss after what he called "the most awful outing I've had all year." Asked whether he was confident he'd remain the Brewers' ninth-inning option, Axford said, "That's up to the manager. Am I confident that I'll go out and get the job done? Yes. Hopefully, I will get that opportunity again." Axford has held that role since he took over for a struggling Trevor Hoffman in 2010, and he parlayed that learning experience into the best season by a closer in Brewers history; only two blown saves in 48 chances in 2011. This season, Axford already has five blown saves in 21 chances. Last year he walked 25 batters in 73 2/3 innings. This year, Axford has walked 21 batters in 37 innings. Monday's letdown spoiled rookie starter Mike Fiers' seven scoreless innings, Corey Hart's long, tiebreaking home run in the bottom of the seventh inning and Ryan Braun's insurance double in the eighth, which gave Axford a 2-0 lead. By the time Axford took the ball, the first-place Reds had already lost at home to the D-backs, and the second-place Pirates were trailing the Rockies in Denver. In other words, the Brewers had a chance to gain ground on all three divisional rivals they're chasing. Instead, they remained eight games behind the Reds with the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline coming fast. "You know, I know how important these games are," Axford said. "That's why this one is even more frustrating, giving away a win like that on my half." The problem on Monday? "I mean, he was throwing 97 with cut," Holliday said. "But I imagine his command probably wasn't where he wanted it." Brewers fans, many of whom wear T-shirts to Miller Park depicting Axford's famous mustache, voiced their displeasure with boos. "I'm in the position where it's kind of, 'What have you done for me lately?' " Axford said. "Fans are going to feel the way they feel. We're in a race right here, we're trying to win some ballgames and we're not winning right now. ... If I'm not doing the job, they can say whatever they want." Axford threw first-pitch balls to each of the first six hitters he faced, walking Matt Carpenter leading off the inning and Skip Schumaker with two outs, on a full-count curveball after shaking off catcher Martin Maldonado's call for a fastball. With Rafael Furcal's infield hit mixed in -- a bouncer that drove Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez back too deep, Roenicke figured, for Ramirez to have had a play even if he fielded the ball cleanly -- the Cardinals loaded the bases. Holliday eased the logjam with his grounder through the hole between first and second base. Craig dumped his go-ahead single over shortstop. "Altogether, that's the most frustrating outing I've had all year," Axford said. "I've had a few blown saves this year, but that's definitely the most frustrating one. I couldn't find anything -- fastball, breaking ball. ... I've been feeling good lately. Today, I just felt awful." The earlier innings featured a duel between Fiers and Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn, and the NL All-Star blinked first. Lynn had thrown only 86 pitches through six scoreless innings, carving through the Brewers lineup with only three harmless hits. But he hung a one-out slider to Hart and the Brewers' first baseman didn't miss it, hitting his 17th home run 435 feet to center field. It was Lynn's only blemish. He allowed six hits with 10 strikeouts and no walks in seven innings. Fiers set a career high with four walks, but scattered four hits and struck out four batters over seven innings. Three times, he issued a two-out walk but escaped. Only twice did the Cardinals move a runner past first base against him -- in the first inning on a single and a walk, and in the fourth on Yadier Molina's one-out double. Fiers has surrendered only two runs in his last 32 2/3 innings of work, spanning five starts plus one relief appearance. "I've had stretches in my baseball career where I've thrown multiple scoreless innings or something like that," Fiers said. "I'm just enjoying it right now. Trying to throw up zeroes and give our team a chance to win."
For Fiers, it was a tough-luck no-decision."You get a big homer from Corey, a big hit from Brauny, you're feeling pretty good about what's happening," Roenicke said. "Frankie [Rodriguez, who pitched a scoreless eighth inning] comes in and does his job. And you lose -- any time that happens, that's tough on a team. Whether it's a month ago or now, it's hard."