Axford making most of chance

CHRIS TOMAN, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 4:24 PM ET

TORONTO -- Multiple Canadian-born hurlers were supposed to be impact pitchers for their respective teams in 2010, but the first half of the year didn't exactly reflect those predictions. On the other hand, some have stepped up and assumed new roles, exceeding expectations by putting together a strong first half.

All John Axford has done so far this year is stave off Trevor Hoffman, the all- time saves leader, for the closer's role in Milwaukee. The Brewers' new stopper has not allowed a run since the All-Star break, collecting three saves and lowering his ERA to 2.70 in the process. While the intention of the Brewers organization may not have been for Axford to assume the closer role on a full-time basis, he's making their decision easier than anticipated. Axford is sporting a 1.17 WHIP, a K/9 ratio of 11.40 and has yet to blow a save this entire season.

He may not be the prettiest at times, but Blake Hawksworth continues to start for the St. Louis Cardinals since taking over the fifth spot in the rotation for the injured Brad Penny. The sophomore threw out of the bullpen to start the year, a role he assumed last season as well, but has gone 3-1 with a no- decision in his last five outings. Hawksworth's 4-5 record, 4.85 ERA and 1.77 WHIP may not be overly impressive, but the 27-year-old is soaking up innings for a Cardinals team that is battling for the National League Central division with the Cincinnati Reds. The North Vancouver native has allowed three runs or less in four of his last five starts, and should continue to get the ball until if/or when the Cardinals supplant him in the rotation.

Ryan Dempster, who has turned into Canada's marquee starting pitcher in the big leagues, has boasted impressive stats while playing for one of the league's most underachieving teams. The Chicago Cubs right-hander continues to reinforce his reputation as a workhorse, and has pitched well this season for a staff that sits 10 games under .500.

Dempster's eight complete games are tops in the NL and his 130 strikeouts are good for eighth in the league. Dempster is coming off his worst outing in over a month, however, as the four earned runs he surrendered snapped a consecutive streak of eight straight games without allowing more than three earned runs. The 33-year-old is not showing meaningful signs of letdown though, boasting a deceiving 8-7 record, with a 3.70 ERA, while on his way to a third consecutive season of over 200 innings pitched, (133.2 to date).

With speculation that his rotation spot may be in jeopardy, Jeff Francis picked a good time to have a strong outing against the Washington Nationals on Tuesday. The Colorado Rockies left-hander blanked the Nationals over seven innings, striking out seven in the process, while holding them to three hits, en route to his third victory of the season. Before this start, Francis had allowed 16 runs over his last 12 innings, a span which covered three games. Francis was the ace of the 2007 NL pennant-winning Rockies, but after shoulder surgery which cost him the entire 2009 season, he's now fighting just to get the ball every fifth day. With more performances like his most recent one, when he effectively used his changeup as an "out" pitch, Francis could be a key contributor down the stretch for a Rockies team fighting for a postseason berth.

INJURY UPDATE

Seattle Mariners left-hander Erik Bedard will now be facing an even longer road to recovery than what was previously expected. After throwing successful rehab assignments in June, Bedard subsequently felt discomfort in his surgically- repaired shoulder that will require him to be re-examined, further prolonging his return to the big leagues. The 31-year-old has been plagued with injuries throughout his career and has not thrown at the major league level since last July. Until further evaluation, the Canadian's immediate status is currently unknown.

Rich Harden, the Texas Rangers' biggest pitching acquisition of the offseason, is once again dealing with injuries. The talented right-hander is on the DL with a non-arm-related injury (glute) but is on his way to a fifth straight season of logging less than 150 innings.

Harden, who when healthy racks up strikeouts and at times can be dominant, could prove to be a formidable sidekick to Cliff Lee down the stretch run if he can stay off the shelf. A player of Harden's capabilities should be able to turn it around despite sporting a career worst 5.68 ERA and 1.68 WHIP. The oft-injured 28-year-old could return to the big league club as early as next week.


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