Opportunistic Axford has seized his chance
Reliever works his way back into baseball to be Brewers' closer
MILWAUKEE -- Trevor Hoffman could have protested, sulked or generally raised a stink. He's the all-time career saves leader, after all, and the Brewers were yanking him from the closer's role just four saves shy of No. 600.Instead, Hoffman helped. And John Axford became a bright spot in the Brewers' season. "I don't think it would have done anyone any good to show any bitterness toward the situation," Hoffman said. "I created this situation. He was just sitting at the corner of opportunity." Consider the opportunity seized. "I'm not a replacement for Trevor Hoffman," said Axford, a 27-year-old rookie who took over for Hoffman in late May. "I never expected this situation. It could have been weird, but this is once again a credit to Trevor. He's a remarkable guy, has amazing character. He has helped me every step of the way. He's someone I look up to." Hoffman went 5-for-10 in save chances before he was removed from the role in favor of the hard-throwing Axford, who converted his first 14 opportunities before his first blown save on Saturday against the Nationals. He bounced back two nights later with save No. 15. He is only the latest Brewers closer to come seemingly out of nowhere. For every Francisco Cordero, Eric Gagne and Hoffman, established closers who have pitched to varying degrees of success with the Brewers over the past decade, there's been a Dan Kolb, Derrick Turnbow or Salomon Torres. Now, it's Axford. "It's a good story," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "We never planned to replace Trevor Hoffman with John Axford, but he's been very good, beyond our expectations. We always knew he had a good arm, but did we know we had a closer we could do this? No. I think our people have done a very good job over the years of finding these guys." Mother Nature played a part. Axford was unemployed in early 2008 after he was released by the Yankees, and a friend helped set up a showcase for scouts near Toronto. A snowstorm struck that day, and Jay Lapp, one of the Brewers' scouts in Canada, was the only scout who made it. When he saw Axford pumping 96-mph fastballs into the catcher's mitt, he signed him up. Axford spent the rest of 2008 honing his command at Class A Brevard County but blossomed in 2009 and made four stops, including a September stint with Milwaukee. He notched his first career save in the season finale after Hoffman faltered against the Cardinals. Axford started the 2010 season at Triple-A Nashville but didn't last there long. By May 15, he was in the Majors. By May 23, he had supplanted the struggling Hoffman as closer. When Axford trots into games at Miller Park, he passes under a huge banner with Hoffman's image and his Major League-leading saves total. It's been stuck on 596 for more than two months. "Bottom line, he came in and stabilized the back end of the bullpen, a lot like I did last year," said Hoffman, who started the '09 season on the disabled list but then notched 37 saves and made the All-Star team. "We've won ballgames since he came in. Ultimately, that's the goal right now." Opponents are hitting .225 against Axford, who has 41 strikeouts in 33 innings. Along with right-hander Kameron Loe and left-hander Zach Braddock, Axford has helped stabilize a bullpen that was in peril given Hoffman's struggles and LaTroy Hawkins' shoulder injury. "I haven't seen any chinks in his armor yet. He's just been amazing," bullpen coach Stan Kyles said of Axford. "It's really been impressive how he's become so comfortable so soon. I'm sure it was a little tough replacing Trevor Hoffman, but Trevor has been a great asset to Ax. I think that helps a lot. "You knew that Trevor was never going to say anything bad, but if his body language was such that Ax could sense that he was uncomfortable with it, that would have been carried out to the mound." Not that Axford's career has not included moments of doubt. Axford's collegiate career at Notre Dame was derailed in 2003 because of a major elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. In 2006, before he signed with the Yankees, he considered calling it quits. In 2008, after his first season in the Brewers' chain, he worked as a bartender at East Side Mario's in Dundas, Ontario, to save money for an engagement ring for fiancée Nicole. Axford wondered whether they would be better off beginning a life away from baseball. "I was thinking about it," Axford said. "But I knew I had it in me. It's not like the ability disappeared. I had to find it deep inside me. It just took a few years." The owner of East Side Mario's helped convince Axford to stick it out. Mike Simoncic made Axford a promise. "He said, 'If you end up playing in the big leagues, I'll be at your first game and I'll bring you a bottle of scotch,'" Axford said. Simoncic didn't make it to the first game after Axford's September 2009 callup, but he did make it to Wrigley Field on Sept. 15 for Axford's Major League debut. Simoncic sat in the stands behind the Brewers' bullpen and chatted with Melvin, a fellow Canadian. Simoncic came through with that bottle of scotch. "I don't know if my story is out there or whether people care to read up on it," Axford said. "But in times of doubt, there's always some sort of positive aspect. You have to grab onto it and let it carry you through."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.