MILWAUKEE -- In the minutes after the Cardinals celebrated a 7-6 win over the Brewers, manager Mike Matheny chose not to start speculating how the team would handle save situations in the coming days.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals are clearly in a closer conundrum, with Edward Mujica having blown three of his last five save chances. That included a opportunity on Friday when he frittered away a two-run lead. Asked if the ninth-inning complexion was likely to change, Matheny said it was "too fresh right now" to react with definitive decisions.
"We'll have a better idea [on Saturday]," Matheny added.
Earlier in the day, the Cardinals manager had reasserted his confidence in Mujica, who had just blown a save Thursday in Colorado. But that confidence could be waning after Friday, which saw Mujica allow four of the five batters he faced to reach. John Axford had to assist Mujica in getting out of the trouble.
"I don't have an issue that I can put my hand on," Matheny said. "Velocity is close. Split action and speed on the split [changeup] is close. There's nothing that's glaring to say, 'Here, that's what's going on.' You're always walking a fine line with all your pitchers, especially a closer. We know how important it is to have a guy that can pitch the ninth and be effective. We'll take a deep breath and check everything out and figure out what we can do to help get him right."
Speaking before Friday's outing, Mujica said that he thought he had put his finger on an issue after Thursday's outing. Along with pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and pitcher Chris Carpenter, Mujica watched video of his outing before boarding the team's charter flight to Milwaukee. He admitted to feeling some fatigue and wanted to see if that was having an effect on his mechanics.
Mujica identified a problem with his release point. It was not consistent with the speed of his delivery.
"Sometimes you don't see that, but other people in the dugout can see what you're doing on video," Mujica said. "I have to work on it."
Mujica hopes the fix is that simple, though his remarks about fatigue perhaps indicate that there are multiple factors behind his recent struggles. The dominance that defined Mujica's early season success has been replaced by much more complicated outings. Whereas he faced the minimum batters while converting 15 of his first 21 save opportunities, Mujica has done that in only three of his last 10.
He has been scored upon in six of his last 11 outings, allowing eight earned runs, three home runs and a .425 opponents' batting average during that stretch. In his first 52 games, Mujica gave up only 10 earned runs, five homers and held opponents to a .200 average.
Shooting down speculation that there could be something physically wrong, Mujica said the stress of his role could be behind this recent bout with fatigue.
"It's a different situation," said Mujica, who ranks third in the National League with 37 saves. "To be a closer is totally different, because you have to be ready for almost every single night. Last year, I was preparing to throw the seventh inning. I might pitch three days in a row and then [manager] Mike [Matheny] just gave me one or two days off. As a closer, it's different. Every single day you have to be ready for the game. Sometimes when we're on the road… sometimes you have three or four or five innings warming up for that situation. Then you come into the game and you feel a little bit tired. It's different to be a closer. There are a lot of responsibilities mentally and physically."
Matheny, though, downplayed the potential fatigue factor. Though Mujica is closing for the first time in his career, he will not match his season highs in innings pitched or appearances this season.
"I don't want to go there. I don't want him going there," Matheny said. "I know it's something that's naturally talked about whenever you see some difference in somebody's performance you want to start breaking it down and figuring it out. But that's one of those things that we really can't control. What he can control is putting that out of his mind to go back out and make his pitch one at a time. That's a real simple philosophy that we've had with our pitchers all season."
Axford picks up win, gets warm reception in return
MILWAUKEE -- Just over three weeks after being traded to the Cardinals, reliever John Axford returned to the ballpark that he called home for the first five years of his big league career. The homecoming would turn out to be especially memorable.
In his first appearance against his former team, Axford picked up his first win in the new uniform. Adding to the context, too, was that the losing pitcher in Friday's 7-6 Cardinals win was Michal Blazek, the right-hander the Cardinals dealt to acquire Axford.
Though Axford allowed one inherited runner to score in the ninth, he worked out of a bases-loaded mess with an inning-ending double play.
"Not an easy situation," manager Mike Matheny said afterward. "With all the other things still in play with him coming back here, I thought that might play into his hand, and I thought it did. He was sharp and good. The infield hit and then getting a real big double-play ball for us, it was pretty impressive about how he can maintain and do that under that kind of pressure."
Added Axford: "My first Cardinal win coming against the team that I just played for -- definitely a fantastic win and it's big for our team."
Axford had last pitched at Miller Park on Aug. 21, throwing two scoreless innings against -- of all teams -- the Cardinals. It was at the end of the Brewers' following road trip that Axford learned he'd be joining a pennant race in St. Louis. The timing of that trade allowed Axford no time to clean out his locker at Miller Park, which meant that one of the items on his to-do list this weekend was to stop by and gather a few of those items he left behind -- namely his stash of candy and baseball mementos.
Otherwise, the right-hander was trying to treat this road stop little different than he would any other.
"It's really not that awkward," he said. "I was over there for a few years. I had some great times over there, but obviously things change in this game. I've enjoyed my first almost four weeks with this team already quite a bit and I think I'm fitting in here quite well. The team is accepting me quite well. I'm excited to be here."
Axford was intrigued to see what sort of reaction he would receive upon his first appearance here as a Cardinal. When he trotted in from the bullpen in the ninth, there was a mix of cheers and boos. The game circumstance seemingly played a role in that reaction.
Axford was terrific during parts of his time with Milwaukee and helped lead the Brewers to the National League Championship Series with his 46-save season in 2011. Success didn't come so readily in 2012 and 2013, though. Axford lost his job as the team's closer and had a 4.19 ERA at the time of the August trade. Which part of his tenure the Brewers fans dwell on will influence their reception.
"The fan base here is great, but you never know what a reaction is going to be like," said Axford, who has allowed two earned runs in 7 2/3 innings with the Cardinals. "Hopefully they remember [the good]. I'm not sure what the reaction will be -- if it will be mixed, good, bad. But the thing that I'm looking forward to most is getting the Cardinal reaction, because it'll probably be a pretty good contingent here. That'll be fun to get their cheers in this ballpark for the first time."
Adams cleans up in return to Cards' lineup
MILWAUKEE -- A bulky elbow brace was waiting on Matt Adams when he arrived at Miller Park on Friday, two days after the first baseman had to exit a game due to right elbow irritation.
Adams described the brace as "stricter" than the one he wore last season before he had to undergo season-ending surgery to remove bone chips from around his elbow. He tested his swing wearing the brace on Friday afternoon and said afterward that he was not concerned about it restricting his extension.
He then made that assertion widely known in the series opener.
Making his second career start as a cleanup hitter, Adams reached base four times. He delivered the game-tying hit in the seventh and a go-ahead, two-run homer that measured an estimated 436 feet in the ninth. It was Adams' sixth home run since he stepped in for an injured Allen Craig on Sept. 4.
"Obviously, that brace on his arm doesn't affect him too much because he had great at-bats right from the top," manager Mike Matheny said. "A gutsy performance from the fact that they were considering [on Wednesday] that maybe we would have to go get this [elbow] looked at a little bit deeper. He just wanted to play. That's huge for a young player to realize that at this time of the year, something is going to be off just a little bit, but if I can trust the medical team that I'm not going to hurt myself worse and I just have to grind through."
Matheny moved Adams up to the four-hole mostly because he wanted to take Carlos Beltran out of it. Since Craig injured his foot, Beltran has hit .191 with three doubles, no homers and seven RBIs as the team's cleanup hitter. In contrast, he had a .317/.345/.545 slash line in 79 games hitting second this year. Nineteen of his 23 homers and 50 RBIs have come in those games. He added another two RBIs - including the game-winning one - batting from the second spot on Friday.
"We need to get Carlos going," Matheny said. "That's all there is to it. For whatever reason, in that second spot, he's had good success. We want him feeling right. [We're] trying to make small changes here and there and get somebody going in the right direction. You never know."
• Matheny said that Craig (mild left foot sprain) has been simulating swings back in St. Louis so that he does not lose the strength that he had built up in the core of his body. Craig is believed to still be wearing a walking boot to prevent against re-aggravation. The Cardinals have not provided an estimated return date for their first baseman.
• The Cardinals will continue to roll with their five-man rotation as is, meaning that rookie Michael Wacha will make his next scheduled start on Tuesday. Wacha allowed 12 hits and four earned runs in 4 2/3 innings on Thursday. He has now thrown a combined 141 innings between Triple-A and the Majors this season.
• Assistant hitting coach Bengie Molina will remain away from the club through the weekend series so that he can be with his mother, who recently underwent a heart procedure.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.