John Axford: Unknown to undisputed closer
Hard-throwing Canadian pitcher relishes different role with Brewers
John Axford is OK with his baseball journey, and the fact it took him about 20 years to find his comfort zone and live his childhood dream.
Pitching in eight minor leagues, drafted twice, released by a third major league team and overcoming Tommy John surgery — plus a subsequent move by Notre Dame to not renew his athletic scholarship — all seems worth it to the starter-turned-closer for the Milwaukee Brewers.
"It was my dream to be a major league baseball player and I did it in 2009. It took a little bit longer than what I hoped … but my aspirations were high when I was young," the Simcoe, Ont., native told CBCSports.ca during a recent visit to Toronto, where he accepted a special recognition award from Baseball Canada.
"[Having to wait] helped my drive, helped me focus on the task at hand and everything I wanted in my life. … Baseball was really and truly what I wanted to do. It all worked out, I worked hard at it and it's been good."
The book on John Axford
- Age: 27
- Hometown: Simcoe, Ont.
- Position: Relief pitcher (closer)
- Height: 6-foot-5
- Weight: 195 pounds
- MLB seasons: 1-plus
- Team: Milwaukee Brewers (2009, 2010)
- Games (career): 57
- Wins: 8
- Saves: 25
- Innings pitched: 65 2/3
- Strikeouts: 85
- ERA: 2.60
So good, in fact, that the 27-year-old Axford will report to spring training Feb. 17 as the Brewers' undisputed closer after wresting the job away early last season from the now-retired Trevor Hoffman, the majors' all-time saves leader.
After Hoffman and Carlos Villanueva took turns blowing saves, then-Brewers manager Ken Macha gave the ball and a save chance to Axford last May 23 in his fifth outing of the season during an interleague game at Minnesota.
The relatively unknown fireballer struck out fellow Canadian Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer before loading the bases, allowing a run and nailing down his first save of the 2010 season. Axford went on to convert his next 13 save opportunities and Milwaukee had found Hoffman's successor.
"It was good to get thrown in there. It was a tough one, too. I think I proved I could handle [being a closer]," recalled Axford, who posted one save and a 3.52 earned-run average in seven games with the Brewers in 2009.
"I was in a rabid atmosphere, all the [38,952] fans yelling and screaming, and to hear the collective calmness go over them and for them to be quiet after I got the last out, that was really rewarding and I realized if I could do it there I could do it anywhere."
Four years earlier, Axford had transferred from Notre Dame and was a starter at Canisius College in Buffalo — a popular school for Canadian collegiate ball players. He took a fiery mentality to the mound but the results weren't favourable as the right-hander mustered a 3-8 record and 5.01 ERA in 14 starts. In 70 innings, he struck out 75 and walked 75.
"I'd come [off the field] after each inning, sit on the bench and focus on something to get myself fired up and get back out [on the mound]. I tried to carry that mentality over to pro ball and it just wasn't working for me," said Axford.
He spent the next two seasons getting signed and released by the New York Yankees and jumping leagues, including stints in Canada's Western and Intercounty loops, while splitting time as a starter and relief pitcher.
The Brewers signed the 6-5, 195-pound Axford in March 2008 and assigned him to Brevard County of the Florida State League, where he sported a 4.55 ERA in 26 games, including 14 starts.
Milwaukee made Axford a full-time reliever in 2009 and it paid off as he fashioned a 1.63 ERA in 19 appearances and fanned 43 batters in 27 2/3 innings before earning promotions to AA Huntsville and AAA Nashville later that season.
"I realized being calm on the mound helps me more," Axford said. "I don't need to huff and puff, try to get upset or get angry. … I'm still excited and [into the game] but being calm keeps me even-keeled and doesn't let me get too emotional on the mound.
"Going through the minors, starting was where I wanted to be. But I think slowly and surely, the 2009 season made me realize that the mentality I have now is actually [better suited] for a relief role. The closing job is perfect for me."
Boasting a 97 mile-per-hour fastball, Axford collected eight victories and converted 24 of 27 save chances in 50 games with the Brewers last season. He also had a 2.48 ERA, struck out 76 batters in 58 innings pitched and held opposing batters to a .201 average.
Capitalized on opportunity
"When we brought him up [in 2010] we did expect him to close," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin of Chatham, Ont., told the Toronto Sun in January. "He earned it and capitalized on the opportunity when that door opened.
"He showed great poise and the ability to not give in to hitters."
That approach, Axford would agree, comes from observing and picking the brain of an 18-year major leaguer like Hoffman on a daily basis.
Despite losing the closing job to Axford, Hoffman maintained his professionalism and had an open door for all the Brewers relievers.
"He helped me out in any situation he could, whether it was warming up, whether it was how I felt or what I thought about something," said Axford. "I think just watching him day in and day out — even though he wasn't closing games at that point — he was still working just as hard as he ever did.
"He [closed] for 18 years and did it right for 18 years. To see him do it that 18th year when he was going through struggles, working as hard as he could, helped me realize what it takes [to survive in the big leagues]. This is a man who has 601 saves. If he had that much success he must be doing something right."
Hoffman, a longtime closer with the San Diego Padres, has returned to the team in a front office position, but will reunite with Axford during spring training as the Padres and Brewers meet three times.
"I'm looking forward to seeing him, catching up and wishing him a happy retirement," said Axford.
And then it's back to work to prepare for Opening Day April 2 at Cincinnati and, hopefully, career save No. 26 in his journey to join Hoffman in the 600-club.