Opening Day is 59 days away.
59 days from the regalia and tradition of team introductions, bunting hanging from stadium facades around the league, and thunderous applause when the home team pitcher delivers the first pitch of the season.
For #59 on the Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers countdown, despite it not being an exact match by calendar day Opening Day is the anniversary of his worst outing of the season.
Of course I’m talking about Milwaukee’s bullpen ace and resident purveyor of all things facial hair:
John Berton Axford hails from the great north and has a well-documented path to the big leagues. It’s not one that I’ll rehash here, but if you haven’t heard about his time as a cellphone salesman and bartender, nor read about how Jay Lapp braved treacherous weather to see Axford throw one cold, Canadian day, do yourself a favor and head to Google when you’re finished here.
Standing 6’5″ makes Axford an imposing presence on the mound. He may not be Kameron Loe out there, but Axford utilizes his height very well in his delivery.
The right-hander features a high-octane fastball that has tickled 98 MPH on the radar gun, a slider with good movement and a curve that keeps hitters plenty off-balance.
No doubt you’ve seen many a hitter throughout the 2011 season swing under and behind a fastball that crosses the plate at or higher than his neck. Well, that happens because Axford’s curve ball moves so well that it makes his fastball up and out of the strikezone extremely tantalizing to swing at.
Axford mixes pitches well, doesn’t rely on any specific sequence, and throws his off-speed stuff for strikes. It makes for a tough assignment in the ninth for any group of opposing hitters. It’s an assignment that resulted in Axford converting 46-of-48 Save opportunities throughout 2011.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the Brewers since April 18, 2011 (by the way, the Brewers won the NL Central Championship and beat the Diamondbacks in the NLDS), Axford rattled off 43 consecutive Saves from April 23rd through the end of the regular season. It was that security in the 9th inning that championed the Brewers to a team-record 96 victories.
After all, there’s nothing worse as a hitter than working hard to take a lead into the late innings only to have the lead evaporate within a few pitches.
Which brings us back to why I mentioned Opening Day 2011 at all. It was in Cincinnati on March 31st where the Brewers hitters (with some help from solid pitching) sent the defending NL Central Champion Reds into the bottom half of the ninth inning down by three runs. Axford entered from the visitors’ bullpen and, for whatever reason, couldn’t get the job done that day.
He surrendered a run to make the Brewers’ lead 6-4. Then, with two men on base, he served up a pitch to Ramon Hernandez that the Reds catcher deposited over the outfield wall giving his team a 7-6 victory.
This was Axford’s first day without his on-the-job mentor from 2010, future Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman. It was the first game of the year, one that saw a Brewer (Rickie Weeks) lead off a season with a home run for the first time. It was a win that was basically in the bag.
But then it wasn’t.
There is plenty of talk in the sabermetric community that “closer’s mentality” is a myth. It’s something that is made up by agents as a way to justify higher salaries for the gentlemen that record the final three outs of a tight ballgame. I tell you this: whether you believe in the idea that closers are a different breed by designation, John Axford certainly is.
Normal men might have allowed that crushing loss to affect them for a long time. Normal men might have pitched tentatively the next time (or 10), trying to avoid a game-losing home run and allowing the opposition to nickel and dime him to a loss anyway.
Not Axford. He ticked off three saves, blew one on the aforementioned April 18th when he gave up a single run to the Phillies in a game that the Brewers ended up winning in extra innings anyway, and then didn’t blink the rest of the year. Sure, he gave up a run here and there, but was perfect much more often than not.
In fact, in Save situations after April 18th, Axford gave up a single run only six times. That’s 37 spotless Saves. Of the six blemishes, one was an unearned run in Colorado (you can probably remember that defensive 9th inning if you try), and three more were from solo home runs. In other words, only twice over 43 consecutive Saves was Axford hit enough where the other team was able to manufacture a run.
I think everyone can agree that Axford had a pretty good season.
The other thing to remember is that several leads were blown before Axford even had a chance to take the mound. If-come-maybes notwithstanding, Axford could have had a chance at a 50-Save season. Even without those games, Axford still set the team record for Saves in a single season.
Going forward into 2012, Axford returns as one of the top closers in the game today. With what figures to be an offense that is down in run production from 2011, a quality bullpen will be more important than ever. After losing setup men LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito to free agency, the trade for Jose Veras and return of Francisco Rodriguez after the team expected K-Rod to depart will prove to be very important moves. Their play in front of Axford will greatly influence the team’s success.
The bottom line is that the ninth inning is still where the money is made though in that respect with John Axford, the Milwaukee Brewers are awash in riches.