Axford with the St. Louis Cardinals
April 1, 1983 |
|September 15, 2009 for the Milwaukee Brewers|
(through 2014 season)
|Earned run average||3.40|
Career highlights and awards
John Berton Axford (born April 1, 1983), nicknamed "The Ax Man", is a Canadian professional baseball pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball (MLB). He has also played in major leagues for the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, and Cleveland Indians. Axford led the National League in saves in 2011, and won the Rolaids Relief Man Award that year.
Path to the majors
Raised in Port Dover, Ontario, Axford attended Assumption College School in nearby Brantford. Because the school didn't have an interscholastic baseball program, he played for Port Dover Minor Baseball, Team Ontario and Team Canada. His combined four-year totals with the three clubs were a 37–12 record, a 1.88 earned run average (ERA), 278 innings pitched, 432 strikeouts and 173 walks.
He was originally selected by the Seattle Mariners in the seventh round (219th overall) of the 2001 Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft, but accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Notre Dame instead. He was inactive during his junior year after undergoing Tommy John surgery in December 2003. Used as a starting pitcher in 26 of 36 games, his record in three seasons with the Fighting Irish was 14–6. Despite losing his scholarship as a redshirt senior in 2005, he still earned a bachelor's degree in film, television and theatre.
Axford was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 42nd round (1,259th overall) of the 2005 MLB Draft. He spent the spring of 2006, his one remaining year of collegiate athletic eligibility, at Canisius College where he went 3–8 in fourteen starts. After watching him in action with the Golden Griffins once, the Reds declined to offer a contract. By that summer, he was pitching for the Melville Millionaires of the Western Major Baseball League. A nineteen-strikeout performance in a seven-inning contest caught the attention of the New York Yankees, who signed him as a minor-league free agent on August 11, 2006. His 2007 campaign was divided between three Class A farm teams (Staten Island Yankees, Charleston RiverDogs and Tampa Yankees) and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, where he appeared in only one game. A combined 1–4 in 27 games, he was released by New York on December 14, 2007.
After spending the winter working as a cell phone salesman for Telus in the Toronto area, he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers on March 4, 2008. A 5–10 campaign with a 4.55 ERA for the Brevard County Manatees was followed by an offseason employed as a bartender at an East Side Mario's in Hamilton, Ontario. Used exclusively out of the bullpen in 2009, he improved to a combined 9–1 with the Manatees, Huntsville Stars and Nashville Sounds. He was called up to the Brewers on September 7, and made his major league debut eight nights later as the last Brewers pitcher in a 13–7 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. He surrendered an earned run, a hit and three walks in one inning pitched.
Axford started 2010 in Nashville before being promoted by the Brewers on May 15, 2010. With Trevor Hoffman struggling in save situations, Axford, even though he had never been a closer in his career, was given the job. Axford became a big success as a Brewer closer and gained popularity with Brewer fans as he sported a handlebar mustache in many of his early appearances, bringing back memories of legendary reliever Rollie Fingers. Axford finished his first full season with an 8–2 record, a 2.48 ERA, pitched in 50 games, was 24 out of 27 in save attempts, and struck out 76 batters in 58 innings pitched.
He was named a relief pitcher on Baseball America's 2010 All-Rookie Team.
Axford went into 2011 as the Brewers closer and struggled early in the season when he blew two saves in the first two weeks of the season, but he then went on to convert every single save opportunity for the rest of the season.
On September 24, Axford set the Brewers franchise record for most saves in a single season, saving his 45th against the Florida Marlins. For the season he led the National League in saves (46), and was second in games finished (63), pitching in 73.2 IP with 86 strikeouts and 59 hits while going 2–2 with a 1.95 ERA. Axford was the first Brewers pitcher since Rollie Fingers to be a league leader in saves.
Axford continued his success in the postseason for the Brewers, appearing in 6 playoff games and racking up 3 saves and a 1.29 ERA while striking out 9 batters in 7 innings pitched. Axford however blew his first save since the second week of the season in the decisive game 5 of the NLDS, but still got the win as the Brewers won the game in the 10th inning.
Recognition of Axford's success in 2011 continued into the offseason, where he was ninth overall in voting for the NL Cy Young Award, and 17th overall for the NL MVP award. He has been nominated for and won several awards recognizing his success since the season has ended as well, including winning the NL Rolaids Relief Man (given to the league's best closer), and the Canadian Tip O'Neil Award (presented annually to the Canadian player judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution). He shared the award with Joey Votto, the third time the Tip O'Neil has been shared.
Axford began the season with six straight saves, extending a streak to 49 consecutive save opportunities converted. This was the fourth-longest streak in MLB history. This impressive streak ended on May 11, 2012, in a game against the Chicago Cubs. As it turned out, Axford's wife began going into labor with the birth of his second child that night, and he was unavailable to comment after the game on his blown save. Instead, he left a handwritten note for journalists in his locker. On July 16, Axford gave up three runs in the top of the 9th to blow a 2-0 lead. Axford, however, was able to regain his control and was reinstated as the Brewers closer in the second half of the season. He managed to rebound enough to finish the 2012 season with 35 saves, which was still good enough for 6th in the National League, with a 4.67 ERA, plus a new career high in strikeouts in a season, striking out 93 batters in 69 innings pitched, averaging 12 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. On September 16, Axford made his 100th career save, closing a game against the New York Mets.
On January 18, 2013, the Brewers announced they had avoided arbitration with Axford, signing him to a one-year contract worth $5 million. He pitched for the Canadian national baseball team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic (WBC) before the MLB season. In his first four appearances with Milwaukee, he had an 0-2 record with 22.10 ERA and a blown save. He threw 98 miles per hour (158 km/h) during the WBC, but only 90 to 91 miles per hour (145 to 146 km/h) with the Brewers. The Brewers replaced Axford as their closer with Jim Henderson. He had a 4.45 ERA in 62 games for Milwaukee.
St. Louis Cardinals
On August 30, 2013, the Brewers traded Axford to the St. Louis Cardinals for a player to be named later, who was later identified as Michael Blazek. Cardinals' coaches told Axford that he was tipping his pitches. With the Cardinals, Axford worked with catcher Yadier Molina to fix mechanical flaws the Cardinals' coaching staff diagnosed. Axford completed the season with a 1.74 ERA in his last 13 regular-season games, and a 1.59 ERA during the 2013 postseason, including 2 1⁄3 innings without allowing a run during the 2013 World Series.
After the season, the Cardinals opted not to tender Axford a contract for the 2014 season, making him a free agent.
Despite 9 saves in April, Axford struggled in the Indians closer role, and lost the job to a closer-by-committee composed of Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison and Marc Rzepczynski in May 2014.
When Axford first entered the Majors as the Brewers everyday closer, he relied heavily (almost exclusively) on his power fastball, which is generally thrown around 96–98 MPH, but can reach as high as 100 MPH. Because of his height, the pitch is delivered on a downward plane, and is thrown with a peculiar arm snapping motion. Since then, his breaking pitches have become nearly as dominant as his fastball, and he now regularly throws a very good curveball at 79–80 MPH with a sharp 12 to 6 break, as well as an 83–86 MPH slider with a late, sharp break.
For the 2014 Oscar awards, Axford correctly predicted all eighteen winners via his Twitter account before the ceremony took place at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. An avid film fan, he had correctly predicted 14 of 15 winners the year before.
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