MILWAUKEE -- All-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman admits there was a time earlier this season, however fleeting, that he considered ending his quest for 600 saves. "Those thoughts inevitably creep in," Hoffman said. Hoffman thought better of it, and now the Brewers' most veteran player has resumed a slower-than-expected march to history. Hoffman was denied during a weekend series against the Padres -- his best chance against his former team came on Friday, but the Brewers extended their lead from three to four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, eliminating the save opportunity -- so that big banner hanging over the bullpen at Miller Park will read "598 SAVES" when the Brewers and Dodgers begin a series on Tuesday night.
Here's the idea: Hoffman, stripped of closer duties in May in favor of John Axford, insists that Axford is the closer, and why not? The rookie right-hander is 19-for-21 in save chances, including seven saves of four outs or more. Axford will handle the multi-inning save chances and the tight ones, in which the Brewers lead by one or two runs. Hoffman figures to inherit three-run leads, with Axford available behind him if things get hairy. That's how Hoffman logged save No. 597 against the Astros on Aug. 7. Hoffman might also log some saves following Axford when the rookie finds himself in trouble. That's how Hoffman logged save No. 598 last week in St. Louis, where he struck out the Cardinals' Brendan Ryan with the bases loaded to save a 3-2 Brewers win. It's an unconventional plan aimed at getting a respected veteran, a future Hall of Famer, to a career milestone, and Hoffman is happy he resisted that brief urge to hang up his spikes. He credited his wife, Tracy, who traveled with him throughout May and June to help keep him motivated. Hoffman also credits his Brewers teammates. "Every time I would throw, they'd pat me on the back," Hoffman said. "I can't tell you how important it was to have that support. This is a guy mopping up in a 10-run game, and to a man, they would come up, pat me on the back and say, 'Keep going.' "It was a challenge. It's a big blow to your ego and your pride after all of these years [of] doing it without having it taken away." Manager Ken Macha is very careful to point out that Hoffman has earned some chances. Including a scoreless ninth inning in Sunday's 7-3 loss, Hoffman has been unscored upon in 20 of his last 24 outings, a stretch that has lowered his ERA from 11.65 to 6.53. He's also been important off the field, according to a number of teammates. Every afternoon, Brewers relievers gather for "Camp Hoffman," a boot camp-style workout that includes everything from football drills to group runs around the Miller Park grounds. Rookies Axford and Zach Braddock have credited Hoffman for helping them break into the big leagues, and former starter Chris Capuano on Friday lauded Hoffman for helping him adjust to relief work in his comeback from a second Tommy John surgery. "I think Trevor's interaction with those guys in the bullpen has been a big help," Macha said. "He goes to lunch with these guys, tries to help them out with their thinking and preparation." Hoffman has felt the love in return. "The support from the guys in the bullpen, that's hard to describe," Hoffman said. "To continually have people patting you on the back and rooting for you, that's a pretty neat thing. 'Ax' has been fantastic in the role since he's had it, and he's going to continue to have it. He's our future." In the present, Hoffman will continue waiting for his chances. At 42 and in his 18th Major League season, he is the third-oldest pitcher to appear in a game this season, behind 47-year-old Jamie Moyer of the Phillies and 43-year-old knuckleballer Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox. Hoffman's one-year contract includes a $7 million option for 2011, but the Brewers will probably decline it and pay a $500,000 buyout instead. Unless they trade him first, of course. Hoffman's hot streak could conceivably make him appealing to a contender, though he would have to clear waivers to be traded. It's unknown whether the Brewers have exposed Hoffman to the wire. Hoffman is more focused on continuing his string of success on the mound. No. 600 is only two saves away, and the march is back on. "I don't think that would have happened, had I folded up the tent and gone home," Hoffman said. "It was important that I continued to improve and get back to the way I can throw and feel I should be throwing. Another good arm down there can only help the ballclub."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.