A game of peaks and valleys for Axford
Brewers closer enjoying success after winding road to Majors
Baseball is a game of peaks and valleys, and that condition is most obvious in the lives of closers, relief pitchers charged with getting those often elusive last three outs.
For more than a year, Brewers closer John Axford was perfect at that tricky task, nailing down 49 consecutive saves, the fourth-longest streak in the history of the statistic.
"The streak took on a life of its own," Axford said. "Every time you pass a milestone, you hear about it and you think to yourself, 'What's going on here?' Last season, before the streak started, I blew two early saves. Luck has a lot to do with it."
And then, just like that, in a game against the Cubs on May 11, the streak went up in smoke. But that was the least of Axford's worries that night. When he reached the Brewers clubhouse, he learned that while watching his meltdown on the mound, his pregnant wife Nicole was experiencing early contractions and was taken to the hospital.
Axford dressed quickly, scribbled a note to the media apologizing for leaving early, explaining what happened, and rushed to the hospital.
Nicole Axford came through the crisis just fine.
"The whole thing puts your life in perspective," the pitcher said. "You realize that there's more to life than what goes happens on the field. She's home on bed rest now. It's a little tough with an 11-month-old running around. We've got some friends and family helping out."
Don't worry. Axford will get through it. He's accustomed to tough situations.
The tall right-hander was a late bloomer. Drafted by Seattle, he chose to go to Notre Dame, where he experienced limited success as a starter. He was shut down for a year with Tommy John surgery and then was drafted by Cincinnati. The Reds passed on signing him, but the Yankees took a chance after a 19-strikeout performance in seven innings pitching for the Melville Millionaires of the Western Major Baseball League, a Canadian summer collegiate baseball league. He was released after one year.
Meanwhile, he reinvented himself as a reliever.
There was a time when his velocity all but disappeared and his arm strength was missing in action. He was working as a bartender -- "It pays better than Minor League ball," he said -- and kept working at baseball.
"You pursue your dream. You don't want to give up that dream. Gradually, it came back."
He reached 94 mph on the speed gun when a pitching coach suggested a change in his motion.
"It's about arm slot," Axford said. "They had me throw like Roy Halladay."
Not a bad role model. All of a sudden, Axford became a premier closer, equipped a fastball that reached as high as 98 mph and wearing a handsome handlebar moustache that reminded Brewers fans of Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers, who occupied the team's closer's role in the 1980s. Axford led the league with 46 saves last season, the first Brewers reliever since Fingers to do that. There were three more saves in the postseason.
Axford knows the closer's role may be baseball's most difficult task.
"You're either a hero or a goat," he said. "You feel either love or a lack of love. The trick is to get right back out there. You have to have a short memory. I have great sympathy for other closers. I know what they go through."
All of this may show up one day in a movie. Axford majored in film and broadcasting at Notre Dame and thinks about cinema as a post-baseball career. He will have plenty of tales to tell. Among the first will be about Jameson Axford (expected in June) and how his early arrival turned out to be a false alarm.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.