WASHINGTON -- Several factors have certainly been at play during the Brewers' surge back into playoff contention, but John Axford's turnaround might be among the most significant.
The Brewers' closer sealed Friday night's 4-2 comeback win with his second straight save, allowing only a walk over 19 pitches. One day earlier, Axford struck out the side to clinch a 9-7 win and a sweep over the Pirates.
Axford's ERA sits at 4.68 for the season, but considering he entered September with a 5.17 mark and has allowed just three runs -- on a pair of home runs -- over 11 1/3 innings this month entering play Saturday, his improvement has been a boon to the Brewers' much-maligned bullpen.
All along, manager Ron Roenicke has attributed Axford's struggles to confidence issues rather than any mechanical problems.
"He may not be completely locked in like he gets at times," Roenicke said. "I see it on a couple of batters, and then he'll kind of lose it a little bit. But overall, the confidence looks like it's there, the ball's coming out really well. He's thrown some outstanding breaking balls now, which is really the difference, for me, in what he needs to do."
Everything now is a far cry from earlier in the season's second half, when Axford was removed from his closer's role on July 16. At that point, Axford held a 5.35 ERA with six blown saves.
But following a meeting with Roenicke in mid-August, Axford regained his closer spot on Aug. 22. Since that point, Axford had posted a 3.00 ERA over 15 innings with 13 saves in 16 appearances entering Saturday.
"I think that was my main objective, to turn things around," Axford said after Friday's game. "I was never going to just back down and lay down and leave it where it was in July or August. When I went to talk to Ron, that was the objective. I wanted to turn things around, I wanted to be the closer that I was before, and show him that I could do it, not only on the hill, but also that my mind was there and I wanted to do it and I was willing to do it."
Groin issues won't keep Braun from stretch run
WASHINGTON -- After a rough slide into home and a stolen base on Friday night, Ryan Braun is dealing with a couple of groin issues, manager Ron Roenicke said Saturday.
The rigors of playing 19 games in 21 days this month also hasn't helped, and Roenicke said Braun was "just OK" entering the second game of a four-game series with the Nationals. Braun finished Friday 3-for-4 with an RBI and a run scored in the 4-2 win, though a play at the plate in the fourth inning and a steal in the ninth left him with a slight limp after the game.
Braun wasn't available in the Brewers' clubhouse before Saturday's game, though Roenicke said if the team "plays it smart" with Braun, he shouldn't miss any time.
"He's going out there because we know we need him," Roenicke said. "But he's a little sore today, but he wanted to go out there again."
Only 1 1/2 games behind the Cardinals for the National League's second Wild Card spot entering Saturday, the Brewers clearly can't afford to lose Braun. After enjoying an off-day on Monday before resuming what is a 10-game road trip, the Brewers are playing every day until the regular season ends on Oct. 3.
But in noting the time missed by some of Milwaukee's key players, including Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez, Roenicke pointed out that the Brewers' depth and resiliency have proven critical in their MLB-best 15-4 record in September entering Saturday.
"We've played so well for so long, and in different areas," Roenicke said. "Corey goes down for a while, and [Travis] Ishikawa comes through with some big hits. [Ramirez is] out for a day or two, and we fill in there. The guys are picking it up. The guys on the bench have done a nice job."
With his bunt single in the ninth inning of Friday's 4-2 win over the Nationals, Norichika Aoki extended his hitting streak to 11 games. Aoki entered Saturday batting .293 with with nine home runs, 46 RBIs and 33 doubles in his first Major League season.
"At the beginning, we didn't know exactly how we were going to go and how much he was going to play," Roenicke said. "He did a nice job off the bench early, and then he's taken over. He's great in that leadoff spot. Defensively, he's played well."
Braun entered Saturday leading the National League in home runs (40), total bases (332), extra-base hits (75), slugging percentage (.600) and OPS (.990). He was also tied for the league lead with 106 RBIs.
With Braun's next stolen base, he will have the third 30/30 season in franchise history and the second of his career. Braun enters Saturday with 40 home runs and 29 stolen bases.
Mike Fiammetta is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.