The right-hander will be arbitration-eligible this winter, and the Brewers were expected to non-tender him in light of Jim Henderson's emergence as closer and Brandon Kintzler's strong season as a setup man.
"I think we were probably facing a decision [in the offseason], and we just thought that it was the thing to do now," Melvin said. "I like John. He's one of my favorite guys that's been here -- a standup professional."
Axford cleared waivers earlier in August before St. Louis called this week expressing interest. For two days, the clubs exchanged names before striking a deal late Thursday. Axford had just finished packing in the visitors' clubhouse at PNC Park when manager Ron Roenicke summoned him and told him he'd been traded.
Axford, who owns a 4.45 ERA in 62 appearances this season, was stunned.
"We just went through Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and we were playing for wins, but at the same time, we knew we were playing to be a spoiler," Axford said. "Right now, I'm going to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and I'm going to be contending for a division championship. That's huge. That's going to rekindle a lot of fire within me and get me going. Every game is going to be important."
What was going through Axford's mind on Friday?
"A million different things," he said via telephone. "It's hard to grasp all of the things I've been thinking of today, all the things I have to get done. At the same time, I'm not trying to take on too much. I'm just going to a new team. I don't want to blow it out of proportion.
"I'd lie if I didn't say I was getting nostalgic about all of the good times I've had in Milwaukee on and off the field. I enjoyed every minute of playing, but also every moment of being in the city, going out and about and engaging myself with different people and the different styles of the city, and living as [if] it were home. It's been interesting having all of those feelings, while thinking about going to a new place.
"But at the same time, after that nostalgia, there was a lot of excitement. I'm excited to start something new in my career. Baseball is all about change, and I'm really looking forward to this change."
Now 30, Axford was a bartender and a cell phone salesman when he signed a Minor League deal with the Brewers in 2008. He ascended to the Majors by 2009, grew a famous mustache and saved 106 games over parts of five Brewers seasons, second most in club history to Dan Plesac's 133. Axford set a franchise record with 46 saves in 2011 and converted 49 consecutive regular-season saves in one stretch from 2011-12, leaving a note in his locker apologizing to the media for leaving early when the streak finally came to an end. He left because his wife, Nicole, was showing signs of labor.
It was the fourth-longest saves streak in Major League history. Only the Dodgers' Eric Gagne (84 in a row), Boston's Tom Gordon (54) and Detroit's Jose Valverde (51) had longer streaks.
"He was a big reason -- maybe one of the main reasons -- why we got into the playoffs," Roenicke said. "It's always tough when you like a player and he's performed really well for you, done some great things here. This year was a little tough for him. He was really good at times, and then he struggled at times. I think a new atmosphere that should get into the playoffs, I would think should be a great opportunity and a good place for him to go and get it back together again."
"I think there's something to be said about that," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "You just never know. We hope bringing him into this atmosphere -- and hopefully he just joins in and figures out where he fits in the puzzle and does his part." The Cardinals will evaluate Axford in more pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium before deciding whether to keep him beyond this season. Of the 25 regular-season home runs Axford has surrendered in his career, 16 have been at Miller Park and five at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park.
It gave Melvin pause to trade within the NL Central.
"He's still going to pitch a while, I think," Melvin said. "He's got a lot of years left in his arm. It's tough giving up a 97-mph guy."
If he had to go, Axford was happy the destination was St. Louis, and not just because the Cardinals began play Friday in first place. He and Nicole have good friends in that city, and they have explored its neighborhoods extensively during the Brewers' trips there.
What will be his role with his new team?
"I really have no idea," Axford said. "I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. Just like with the Brewers, I'll take every opportunity I can and do my best. I'm going to a team that's contending and is in first place in the division, and that's automatically going to light another fire in getting me going."