Have you ever watched pitchers in the outfield during batting practice? Probably not, right? Why would you? Maybe there’s one you’re keeping tabs on hoping to get a ball tossed your way, or one of the guys is a target for an autograph on a card you’ve got in your binder. But generally, they stand around chatting with one another until a ball comes their way, when one of them breaks from the pack into a jog to catch it or toss his glove into the air in an attempt to knock it down.
And then there’s John Axford. Before the first game of a three-game set at Yankee Stadium during the last week of June, he took his spot out in right field for batting practice. Like a lot of pitchers, he spent some time with his arms crossed, turning his head and watching as moon shots from the likes of Prince Fielder and Mat Gamel soared into the second deck and beyond. But as the Brewers worked through their groups, as the hitters changed, so did Axford’s focus.
With fewer balls hit far over the short right-field fence came more opportunities to make a play, and that’s what Axford did. He sprinted to his right into the gap and loped back and to his left onto the warning track to make catches. And for those balls that traveled only 319 or 320 feet? Axford positioned his 6-foot-5 frame at the base of the wall and jumped, reaching his glove over the top of the eight-foot fence and pulling back a batting practice home run off the bat of fellow Notre Dame alumnus Craig Counsell.
“I just jumped and put up my glove and somehow it went in it,” Axford said the next day in the clubhouse. “And I just remember my arm going back and I was like, ‘YES!’ You gotta wait until Craig Counsell hits them, because he’s putting them kind of close right over [the top of the wall], so that I can get close to robbing them. If it’s Prince and Gamel, pffft, they’re putting them everywhere I can’t reach.
“It was Counsell’s ball that I robbed. I told him about it after. ‘Hey, did you catch me? I robbed your home run.’ He still hit like eight home runs, though, so he was pretty excited about that.”
John Axford is a visual guy. He’s a self-described “mustache afficionado” who has carefully groomed his facial hair into a Rollie Fingers handlebar, a full soup-strainer with a soul patch and a devilish Fu Manchu (and used it all for a good cause). In college, he majored in film, television and theatre (that’s how the major is spelled in South Bend), so it seems appropriate that one of the first things that drew him to Notre Dame was the mail.
“That bright gold ‘ND’ on the top of the envelope that I got with the recruiting letter. In all honesty, that thing just stood out more than anything,” Axford said when asked about his college choice. “All the others came in letter size and I’m getting this big envelope with this huge ‘ND’ on there. I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing. This is one of the few schools I’ve ever heard of.’ Being Canadian, you don’t hear of many stateside schools, especially if you’re not focused on going to school, which I wasn’t at the time. I was thinking more pro.”
But Notre Dame’s interest changed that line of thought. Axford then attended a fall baseball camp on campus to get a look at the school and have the coaches get another look at him.
“I figured throwing in front of the staff would be the best way to do it,” he said. “They saw me at the Chicago Area Code Games, which is where I think they initially saw me. But seeing me on their field up close and personal, I figured, would be the best way. Apparently they loved me immediately and offered me a scholarship on that day that I was throwing. I kept holding out, because it was expensive. My family, it wasn’t something we were really able to afford, and luckily held out to get a little bit more of a scholarship.”
The visual stimulation also played a part among the trees and tan (gold?) brick buildings beside St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s lakes.
“But I knew right away, once I went there [for a visit], I wanted to go there,” he said. “That was the school for me. The campus was absolutely beautiful, the ballpark was fantastic, beautiful ballpark. And the coaching staff was fantastic. I’m glad I did. Four straight years of Big East championships and the College World Series. Last a lifetime, that’s for sure.”
Axford arrived on campus in the fall of 2001 and, after considering majors in sociology (“I wanted to be a teacher … but you had to take a lot of the teaching classes over at Saint Mary’s, which I just wasn’t going to be able to do with practice.”) and psychology (“Took one class — I was out pretty quick.”), he looked into a course of study that drew on his past experiences.
“I did a lot of A.V. in high school,” he said. “I did a lot of editing, actually, a lot of film editing, because all our announcements that we had were on TVs in class, so I would actually run promos, film promos, and edit those and run those and do some of the graphics for TV for the announcements in the morning. And I loved that, so I wanted to see what their film program was about, so I checked it out and I loved it. Just kept going with it. And then they built the beautiful Regis Philbin theater center there — it was perfect for my senior year to hang out in and enjoy.”
On the field, Axford endured an up-and-down career at Notre Dame. The Irish reached the College World Series in 2002, his freshman year, when he went 5-2 with a 3.95 ERA, striking out 64 in 70 2/3 innings. He pitched once in Omaha, 1 1/3 innings (no hits, two walks, one strikeout) in Notre Dame’s season finale, a 5-3 loss to Stanford.
His sophomore year, in 2003, saw some improvements — a 9-3 record, 69 strikeouts in 71 innings and a drop in walks from 59 to 50 — but also an increase in wild pitches (from seven to 14) and a rise in ERA, to 4.13, the result of three more earned runs (34) despite allowing eight fewer overall (37). But 2004 was a lost year, literally, as he recovered from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He pitched just three innings in ’05.
Thirteen players who appeared in Notre Dame’s three games at Rosenblatt Stadium in ’02 were eventually drafted, including Steve Stanley (second round) and Brian Stavisky (sixth round) by the A’s that month. But Axford is the only one to reach the Majors — yet, he didn’t get there with any of the teams that drafted him, nor the one that signed him to his first professional contract. The Mariners selected Axford in the seventh round in 2001, when he was coming out of high school. He chose to go to college instead. In 2005, following his senior season at Notre Dame, the Reds drafted Axford in the 42nd round, but concerns about his control problems turned them off.
“The first one was the more difficult one, obviously, coming out of high school,” he said. “Being in the seventh round, I was offered a little bit better than seventh-round money. But I knew education was important and that’s what I wanted to do.”
But the decision did not come easily.
“It wasn’t my dream to play college baseball,” Axford said. “It was my dream to play pro ball and play in the Major Leagues. And I remember that’s what I was thinking: If I don’t get this opportunity, am I going to regret it? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it’s not a guarantee I’m going to be playing in the Major Leagues. But this is a guanratee that I can go to a school with a pretty much 100 percent graduation rate. I can go here for four years, even three years, and maybe get drafted again. Eventually, I kind of came to my senses, with my parents’ help, and realized that education is the important thing right now. It was something I was focused on, something I was passionate about too. I wouldn’t be able to beat that education.”
With a year of college eligibility remaining in 2006, Axford enrolled at Canisius College in Buffalo, not far from his home in Ontario, and continued to work his way back from the surgery. That August — following a stint in the Western Major Baseball League in Canada — Axford signed with the Yankees following a tryout on Staten Island and a “callback” in Tampa. He made his professional debut the next spring, pitching a combined 26 games at three levels of Class A ball (Staten Island, Charleston and Tampa) and getting a cameo at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. His combined statistics showed a 1-4 record, 3.29 ERA, 67 strikeouts, 45 walks and 14 wild pitches in 63 innings. He started five of the 27 games in which he appeared.
“When I was with the Yankees, they just had me bouncing around quite a bit,” Axford said. “I played at four different levels. They had me spot-start a few games. I was doing the old piggy-back thing, backing up one of their younger high draft picks down in Staten Island. So I was throwing five innings at a time, so basically like a starter.”
But that December, the Yankees cut Axford loose. Another tryout followed, leading to a contract with the Brewers in March 2008. This arrangement stuck, but it took some adjustments. Axford spent that entire summer pitching for Milwaukee’s advanced Class A affiliate in Brevard County, Florida. He started 14 of his 26 games, walking 73 in 95 innings and throwing 12 wild pitches. He compiled a 5-10 record and 4.55 ERA, with 89 strikeouts. Those strikeouts — and the high-90s radar-gun readings — still tempted the Brewers, despite the wildness.
The first solution was to consider another role for Axford.
“My first year with the Brewers in ’08, they were grooming me as a starter, but I started piggy-backing one of our prospects early,” he said. “He was coming back from surgery, so he’d throw two or three [innings], then I’d pick up the rest of the game if I could. Then after he was moved up, I was starting myself. I think I ended up getting 14 starts that year, some good, some definitely not good. Walks were just the thing that were catching up with me. I remember some games where I would just cut it loose for the first three innings, and I had nothing left after that, so I would only last maybe another two or like one and a third or something, so I wouldn’t get five innings in. And I think maybe they slowly realized that maybe we’ll just try him in relief.”
That transition happened in 2009, beginning in spring training. But there was still the issue of control. A high walk rate from a reliever is not something Major League teams will tolerate.
“In spring training , I was playing with the Double-A squad,” Axford said. “I don’t know if they were making me a reliever or starter. I was just throwing some innings, and thing were not going well. I didn’t even know if I was going to make a team. They sent me back down to A-ball. I was supposed to throw four innings on the A-ball side. I pitched one, and then I went out for the next, didn’t get an out. … I gave up like nine runs and walked like a ton of people and kept giving up home runs and doubles off the wall. I don’t think I was throwing that hard because I was just trying to throw strikes. I was just laying the ball in there all the time. I was just so frustrated.
“So I didn’t even know if I was going to make a team. Luckily, they held on with me long enough. They sent me back down to Brevard, to A-ball, try to get things together.”
One day early in the 2009 season in Dunedin, where the Blue Jays train and their Florida State League team plays — and where a certain Cy Young stud was once teetering on the edge of flameout as a struggling prospect — Axford was pulled aside for a bullpen session by Brewers minor league pitching coordinator Lee Tunnell and Brevard pitching coach Fred Dabney.
“They said, ‘We’re going to try to do a couple things, hope you’re open to it,'” Axford recalled. “‘I’m open to anything,’ is what I said. ‘Whatever’s happening right now isn’t the way I want to pitch, because this isn’t working.’ I was doing OK down there, maybe a 3.00 ERA or two-something. But I knew there was still more in there, so that’s what they tried to work with.
“The first thing they said to me was, ‘Do you know Roy Halladay?’ Yeah, yeah, of course. ‘Just try to pitch like him right now,’ that’s all they said. I’m like, ‘Alright, what do you mean?’ They said, ‘Just do, whatever you think he looks like, try and do that right now.’ And I think that their intention — obviously, because I don’t look like him by any means — their intention was to try to get me to load a little bit better, get my hip back, get my [arm] angle down. And I started doing that, started leaning back, getting a little more angle forward, my arm slot lowered just a little bit — I’m still very high, but my arm slot lowered enough — that I started keeping the ball down better and I started actually picking up velocity because I was becoming more athletic through my delivery.
“It was just night and day, it was unbelievable. In the matter of one bullpen session, I could tell that I was throwing harder.”
And the results could be seen on the field. Now pitching exclusively in relief, Axford went 4-1 over 19 games with a 1.63 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, walking 16 and striking out 43 in 27 2/3 innings for the Manatees. Impressed with his progress, the Brewers promoted Axford to Double-A Huntsville. After four games — essentially a quality start: three runs, seven hits, three walks and nine strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings — and a save, he was on the move again, to Triple-A Nashville.
“That year, when they just kept me in relief, I think it was kind of like a light switch,” Axford said. “‘Alright, this is it!’ I did have a couple three-inning outings here or there, but mostly it was one or two innings. They put me in some pressure situations pretty quick, setting up games, closing out games, coming in with the bases loaded, and I thrived in it. I really loved those situations and I loved being in those moments. I think that was it, that’s what I needed. My mindset before, in the years when I was in college, was toward starting, and I think it was just a completely different atmosphere when it came to pro ball and my mentality kind of just changed, and I think this role is definitely suited and fitting for me right now.”
In 22 games with the sounds, Axford was 5-0, finishing 11 contests and allowing 13 runs, 23 hits and 19 walks in 33 innings. He struck out 37 and posted a 1.27 WHIP. Then the next call came: to Milwaukee. In the course of one season, Axford went from a struggling reliever in spring training to advanced Class A to Double-A to Triple-A to the Majors.
“I only spent a couple of weeks in Double-A and then I was in Triple-A,” he said. “Before I knew it, it was time for the All-Star break, and before I knew it after that, I was in the big leagues in September.”
The Brewers brought Axford to the big leagues on Sept. 7, 2009, which was Labor Day and the start of a three-game series at Miller Park against the Cardinals (who would sweep the set). After an off-day, the Brewers flew to Arizona and swept the D-backs, but Axford watched from the bullpen each night. From Phoenix, it was back to the Midwest and Wrigley Field, where the Cubs won the series opener, 2-0, on Monday, Sept. 14. And still Axford, a uniform on his back, a Major League per diem in his wallet every day, had yet to pitch in a game.
His debut came the next night at Wrigley. In the bottom of the eighth, with the Cubs holding a 12-5 lead, manager Ken Macha called on Axford to pitch the last inning. The first batter, Bobby Scales, flied out to left on an 0-1 pitch. Then Jeff Baker singled to right (on a 1-2 count) and Ryan Theriot drew a walk.
Kosuke Fukudome came up next, and on a 1-0 count, Axford threw a wild pitch, allowing Baker and Theriot to move up to third and second, respectively. But Axford worked his way back to even the count at 2-2, then got Fukudome swinging for his first Major League strikeout. The wildness returned, with Derrek Lee and Micah Hoffpauir drawing walks — Hoffpauir’s scoring Baker — before Geovany Soto flied out to left-center.
That account is easy to find in the game’s play-by-play, but Axford remembers only select parts.
“I literally remember like three pitches — no four,” he said. “I remember my first pitch, because it was a strike. I remember my strikeout of Fukudome, it was a curveball in the dirt; I remember knocking Derrek Lee on his back on a fastball up and in, obviously unintentional, and I remember my very last out, because I thought it was a home run. Bases were loaded and the guy crushed the ball, it was kind of into the wind, maybe just got it off the end and it ended up being a flyout. Those were literally the only four pitches I remember out of probably almost 25 or 30 I threw on that day.”
From a Notre Dame standpoint, there are two other key points to note from that game: Aaron Heilman earned the win in relief for Chicago, and Cubs manager Lou Piniella used Jeff Samardzija to mop up for the home team, meaning three Domers took the mound that night, with one throwing the final pitch for each side.
“It was awesome to have it at Wrigley Field,” Axford said. “I had to wait around a little bit, wait about eight or nine days before I got my debut. … It was a little tough waiting, but it was definitely worth it. It was nice to be able to sit there kind of take it all in, too, for just over a week and enjoy it.”
Axford pitched in six more games that September, finishing five others and even saving one. After walking three, allowing a hit and striking out one in one inning in his debut, Axford walked two allowed four hits and two runs and struck out eight in his other 6 2/3 innings. In fact, if you remove a two-inning outing in Colorado on Oct. 1, when he allowed two runs on four hits and two walks, he allowed only one baserunner (on a walk) in five of his last six outings, covering 4 2/3 innings. And on Oct. 4, in the season finale in St. Louis, Macha brought Axford on to close out a 9-7 win in the 10th inning. He struck out two in a perfect frame, locking down the win for Trevor Hoffman, who had allowed a run in the ninth to blow the save.
That experience helped in 2010. Axford began the season back at Triple-A, then was recalled on May 15, appearing in that night’s game against the Phillies and allowing a run. By the end of the month, he was closing games while Hoffman, who had struggled early in the season, worked out his issues in middle relief. Hoffman, stuck on 596 career saves, wouldn’t record another one until August. He then became the first closer in history to net 600 saves when he held off the Cardinals on Sept. 7, 2010 — one year to the day Axford first got the call to the Major Leagues. And Axford was right there in the middle of the celebration after Craig Counsell threw to Prince Fielder at first base for the final out.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher, and Trevor Hoffman, his work ethic is unbelievable,” Axford said of his former mentor. “It’s unparalled from what I saw day-in, day-out. And for him to be there, to help me at the same time, while he was going through some of his hardships that he went through a little bit last year at the beginning of the year, but still working as hard as he could to get to his goal and working to get back to what he was capable of. Along the way, he was still a friend and mentor. Really helped me a lot. I couldn’t ask for anybody better, that’s for sure.”
Hoffman earned one more save last year, finishing with 601, and retired. Axford entered this year as the Brewers’ closer, with no question marks or uncertainty in spring training. He’s tied for second in the Majors — alone in second in the NL — in saves as of this posting, and his status at the head of Milwaukee’s bullpen makes him one of the two most prominent Notre Dame alums active in the game today, along with the Phillies’ Brad Lidge.
All of which makes it a sight to see — and a somewhat surprising one — when the 6-foot-5 closer is exerting himself in right field at Yankee Stadium, chasing after fly balls with vigor. But then, after this season’s over, he’ll pack up his truck in Milwaukee and head south down I-94, around Chicago, then turn east below Lake Michigan on his way home to Ontario. But like many Domers, he’ll make a quick detour on the way.
“I go back [to campus] every year when I drive back home,” he said. “It’s just a short little stop off the highway. Milwaukee back home is only about an eight-hour drive, so I just drive it. I always stop off at campus, see what’s being built, what’s new. There’s always something new there, every single year. The law school looks absolutely amazing. Haven’t been back to a game, I think, since 2007, but I just like going back to campus and walking around and checking it out.”
Just like any other Irish alum, except this one throws 97 mph.