Axford embracing role as closer

BOB ELLIOTT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:23 AM ET

DENVER -- It's not easy replacing a legend.

"I don't think of myself as the closer," said John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers new closer Sunday morn at Coors Field.

How 'bout short-relief specialist then?

Axford, 27, of Port Dover, Ont., replaced Trevor Hoffman, all-time saves leader (596, 54 more than Mariano Rivera), as the Brewers closer last month.

The Brewers installed a banner with Hoffman's picture and the number '591' on it in left centre at Miller Park signifying his quest for 600. After each save the number was changed. It's stuck on 596 and has been since May 7.

"I want Trevor to get four to get to 600," manager Ken Macha said. "I also want to keep my job."

Right now, Axford is his best bet.

Markham's George Kottaras led off the ninth with a double, keying a five-run rally as the Brewers beat the Colorado Rockies 6-1 Sunday. Axford worked the ninth -- jamming Brad Hawpe on the hands with a 97 m.p.h. fastball, striking out Chris Iannetta looking at a curve and Ian Stewart swinging at another pitch which registered 97.

In a role reversal, Hoffman pitched a scoreless eighth for the win.

Hoffman blew a two-run lead May 18 in Cincinnati (two-run homer by Scott Rolen and a walk-off single by Etobicoke's Joey Votto), so Macha turned to Carlos Villanueva on May 22 and he blew a lead in Minneapolis.

The next day the baton was passed to Axford.

"John has given up a run here or there, but he hasn't blown any games," Macha said. "He has good command of his off speed, he's usually at 96 m.p.h."

Hoffman has helped Axford adjust to the new role.

"Just watching how he prepares and focusses," Axford said. "One time I was going in -- only if we scored. I threw 25 pitches getting ready and we didn't score. Trevor said I could have handled my warm-up more efficiently, should have paid more attention to how the inning unfolded and saved eight to ten pitches on my arm. He's done it for 17 years, he knows what he's talking about."

Axford's first save was a 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 inning at Minneapolis. After a lead-off double to Orlando Hudson, he struck out Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer. He gave up singles to Jason Kubel and Delmon Young, making it a one-run game. After walking Jim Thome, he struck out Trevor Plouffe.

Axford saved an 8-6 win against the New York Mets retiring the 4-5-6 hitters, Ike Davis, David Wright and Angel Pagan; picked up a five-out save in a 7-4 win over the Florida Marlins and recorded a 1-2-3-4 save in a 10-inning win at St. Louis.

Axford was scuffling in the spring of 2009 in Phoenix, close to being released. Fred Dabney, the pitching coach at class-A Brevard County, told the Brewers "give him to me for a few weeks."

Lee Tunnell, minor-league pitching co-ordinator and Dabney approached Axford after a Florida State League game at Dunedin.

"They asked if there was more there, something I could unleash and asked if I'd seen Roy Halladay pitch," said Axford, a Halladay fan of course.

"All they did was change my posture, instead of my spine being straight, they asked me to hunch forward a little, with my lead shoulder tucked in," Axford said. "I did that and added three miles per hour."

His outing against Daytona before the workshop he was 89-92 m.p.h. Next outing against Daytona he was 94-96 m.p.h.

With the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Axford was dominant in 2003. The tale includes: Tommy John surgery, a transfer to Canisius where he walked 75 and struck out 75 in 70 innings, was signed and released by the New York Yankees and signed by Brewers scout Jay Lapp during an indoor workout.

After starting at Brevard he rose to double-A Huntsville, triple-A Nashville, was a September callup in 2009 and now he takes over for Hoffman.

And earlier this season he introduced himself to Halladay.

BOB.ELLIOTT@SUNMEDIA.CA


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