MILWAUKEE -- John Axford's biggest meltdown this season came on Opening Day when he gave up a three-run lead against Cincinnati. The Brewers' closer made sure the Reds didn't do it again.
Axford converted his 23rd save in a wild ninth inning, Rickie Weeks hit a three-run homer and Milwaukee held on to beat Cincinnati 5-4 on Thursday night in an important four-game series before the All-Star break for the NL Central rivals.
"We've had a tough time at their place and at our place when they came here, too, so it's nice to get the first game of the series and hopefully we can carry it over the next three days into the break," Axford said.
Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are all within striking distance of St. Louis atop the division, though the Brewers and Reds haven't played well lately.
The Brewers led 5-2 in the fifth, before LaTroy Hawkins gave up a run in the eighth and Axford ran into serious trouble.
Axford allowed a leadoff home run to Ramon Hernandez -- who hit the only other homer off him on Opening Day -- and he needed a pitch out to erase another runner before getting the final out with men at the corners.
"We did escape with some things and we made some mistakes in the game," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "Ax made some good pitches when he had to and really Hawk did, too, after getting into a little bit of trouble."
Cincinnati's highly-touted prospect Zack Cozart singled, scored his first run and made a defensive play to save another, but the Reds lost for the fifth time in seven games.
The Reds had their opportunities to rally late.
Hawkins gave up an RBI groundout to Jay Bruce to make it 5-3, but got out of further trouble after putting runners on the corners with no outs. Axford gave up a one-out walk to Drew Stubbs, but he was caught stealing on a pitch out for the second out.
Miguel Cairo followed with a broken-bat single just out of the reach of Weeks at second and Joey Votto singled through the shifted infield. Axford ended it after fielding Brandon Phillips' sharp comebacker to him.
"It wasn't going to get through," Axford said. "It's all my offseason work. I don't have anybody to play catch with. I throw it up against a gym wall, so all the balls just come right back to me."
Chris Narveson (6-5) pitched six innings to improve to 4-1 over his last six starts, rebounding from a poor performance in Minnesota on Saturday.
Milwaukee didn't have Ryan Braun for a fifth straight game because of a strained left calf, but the Brewers found a way to put together a big inning after struggling to score runs during their recent slide.
The Brewers took a 1-0 lead in the second on Yuniesky Betancourt's sacrifice fly, but the Reds answered with runs in the third and fourth before Homer Bailey (3-4) lost command in the fifth when he allowed Jonathan Lucroy's single and walked Narveson on four pitches after Narveson wanted to lay down a sacrifice bunt, setting up Weeks' line-drive shot.
"I managed to hit the ball pretty hard right there and you kind of shock yourself sometimes," Weeks said. "Sometimes when you actually hit the ball you don't really see it until you watch the video or somebody tells you. It did feel good, though."
Cozart took over for Paul Janish at shortstop and made an impact in his first major-league game. The 25-year-old saved a run in the third with runners on the corners when he stabbed a grounder going to his right, throwing across the diamond to get Hart at first to end the inning.
In the fourth, Cozart singled with two outs and scored with a headfirst slide off Hernandez's single when Weeks' relay throw from second was wide right of the plate, but the rookie also killed a potential big inning in the sixth when he grounded into a double play.
"What's going to stick out to me is hitting into the double play. That's what I'm thinking about right now. I'm happy to get that first hit out of the way. Hopefully there's a lot more of those," Cozart said.
NOTES: It was Weeks' 16th home run of the season. ... Prince Fielder had his 44th extra-base hit with a double in the second, the most in the NL. ... Utah Jazz PG Devin Harris, a Milwaukee native, threw out the first pitch. ... Tests showed no damage to Braun's left calf, but there's still lingering soreness. ... Axford is 16-for-16 in home save opportunities. ... The Brewers will start RHP Yovani Gallardo (10-5, 3.76 ERA) in the first game of the second half next Thursday at Colorado.