When the season opened in April, pitcher John Axford was a Brevard County Manatee toiling in the bullpens of the Class A Florida State League. In September, he became a Milwaukee Brewer and the first former Canisius College player to make the big leagues since Billy Goeckel played for the 1899 Phillies. Yes, 1899.
Axford has bounded through every step of the Brewers' chain in a remarkable comeback season for a 26-year-old who was a former star at Notre Dame until his career was derailed by Tommy John surgery in 2003.
"This is what you strive for. You want to get here," Axford said by phone last week from Miller Park. "This is what I was hoping for. I didn't think it was really going to happen this fast. I'm getting married this offseason and doing a bunch of other things that I've wanted to do. This year has really been all about starting a new life and getting things going on the right foot."
It's safe to say things have gone right this year for Axford. He's had four September relief outings in the big leagues, the first three against the Cubs and Thursday's scoreless inning against the Phillies. He has a 2.45 ERA in them, allowing one run and one bloop single in 3 2/3 innings and posting three straight shutout appearances. He has four strikeouts and four walks.
Axford is a 6-foot-5, 195-pound right-hander who consistently throws a 95-mph fastball and also has a sharp slider and curve. He was a seventh-round pick of the Mariners in 2001 but opted to go to school at Notre Dame, where he pitched in the 2002 College World Series.
After the surgery, the native of Simcoe, Ont., ended up at Canisius in what was essentially a maintenance season. He went just 3-8 with a 5.01 ERA in 14 starts for the Griffs in 2006 but struck out 75 in 70 innings and constantly attracted scouts to the Demske Sports Complex.
"It was a frustrating year at times," he said. "It was a different school, somewhere I wasn't thinking I'd be and my arm would bother me at times. But it turned out going to Canisius was one of the best steps I made to get to this point.
"I got to understand myself a lot more. I pushed myself there and the workouts were intense. I wanted to put up numbers and I was frustrated about that but it was good I was healthy that year."
Axford then pitched in Melville, Saskatchewan, in a Canadian summer collegiate league, striking out 19 in one seven-inning game, and got a free-agent deal from the Yankees for 2007. He spent all of 2008 still in Class A with the Brewers, going 5-10, 4.55 at Brevard County.
This year, he moved entirely to relief and was 4-1, 1.63 in 19 appearances at Brevard County before going up to Double-A Huntsville in early June. He pitched just four games there (0-0, 3.52 ERA) and the Brewers sent him to Triple-A Nashville, where he went 5-0, 3.55 in 22 games and struck out 37 in 33 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .197 average.
Eight of Axford's 13 earned runs against in Triple-A came in two outings. His ERA in the other 20 was a sparkling 1.48.
"It was a quick stop in Double-A and that's when I thought it was possible to get called up, once I got to Triple-A," he said. "As long as I kept going about my business and getting the work done it was a good chance. . . . You have to look through the organization and see the backlog of pitchers that are there and try to figure out where you fit in."
Axford was planning to pitch for Canada in the World Cup in Italy but the Brewers rescinded his permission so he thought it was possible a big-league call-up was in the offing. The call came Sept. 7 in New Orleans, when the Nashville trainer told him to bring all of his clothes to the ballpark.
He reported to Miller Park later that day ("There were people in parking lots already tailgating and it was quite cool to come into that scene," he said), and sat for eight days without pitching.
He finally got to the mound Sept. 15 in a night game at Wrigley Field. Axford came on to start the bottom of the eighth with the Brewers in a 12-5 hole. He threw 30 pitches in a wild inning that saw him give up a run, strike out two, walk two, uncork a wild pitch and leave the bases loaded.
"People told me to take my time out there because everything goes fast and they were right," he said. "It was exciting. I wasn't nervous on the mound. My hands were trembling a little and my heart started pounding when they told me to warm up. Then, right before the first pitch [a swing and miss by Bobby Scales], everything goes racing through your mind. Your family, friends, fiancee. It hit me for that moment."
Axford said the biggest thing he'll remember from the inning was the noise. It reached a crescendo when he knocked down Derrek Lee on a high-and-tight 94-mph fastball with runners at second and third.
"Wrigley was awesome, the greatest part of the whole thing," he said. "The cheers, the boos when the one pitch got near Lee's head. It was exhilaration to hear the roar of a crowd. It was just a couple of differences from 200 people in the Florida State League."
"We were pretty sure he was a 40-man roster candidate, so we figured we would take a look at him," Brewers Assistant General Manager Gord Ash told MLB.com when Axford was recalled.
"He's struggled with command, but it's improved. We'll give him this opportunity to acclimate himself. That acclimation period for guys coming to the big leagues, it's better to get that out of the way now."
Axford's fiancee, Nicole Burroughs, also attended Canisius. They're getting married Nov. 7 in Ontario so Axford won't go to winter ball. But come next spring, he'll have a legitimate chance to make an Opening Day roster in the big leagues.
"I texted [Canisius coach Mike] McRae the day after I got called up," Axford said. "He called a couple days later and we were able to catch up. He congratulated me and said there was one thing he wanted: a baseball card for the office."
Rust Belt struggles
In Pittsburgh, the Pirates closed the upper deck to PNC Park for the first time Thursday and had only about 2,000 people in the house for a 4-1 loss to the Reds, mostly due to security concerns about the G-20 Summit. But maybe it had something to do with the Bucs' 3-23 slide, which is their worst since a 3-35 finish to a 23-113 season in 1890.
In Cleveland, it's all over but the shouting for Eric Wedge. The Indians' young players persevered to go 15-12 in August but have completely fallen apart this month. They entered Friday 3-19 in September.
"It's tough, but you can't give in to it," said Wedge, who almost certainly won't be brought back for the final year of his contract. "As a leader, because of the youth and the struggles our veterans have had with injuries or performance, you've got to see it through."
Wedge, meanwhile, is getting a new neighbor in suburban Richfield -- Shaquille O'Neal. The Cavaliers' top free agent signee has rented a home close by the manager's and folks in the town are expecting a lot of tourist traffic checking the place out.
Cracked Wedge: "When you're trying to stay under the radar, that doesn't help."
Around the horn
*With not many races of note in September, the chorus is growing in some circles to add one more wild card team in each league. Venerable Hall of Fame writer/ESPN analyst Peter Gammons put out a proposal recently that suggest the two wild cards play off in a first-round series before they join the three division winners.
*Gammons would also start the season three days earlier, on a Thursday in late March/early April, so that teams would be playing almost immediately on a weekend. The thinking is they thus wouldn't have to deal with small crowds on days 2-4 of the season that have traditionally run Tuesday-Thursday.
*Red Sox manager Terry Francona and a few players visited a Chiefs practice last week while in Kansas City. Said Francona: "They're 300-pound men trying to kill each other in practice. We're taking grounders."
*Bisons manager Ken Oberkfell will be managing Escogido in the Dominican Winter League. Former Bison and longtime big leaguer Moises Alou is GM and part owner of the team. Mets first baseman Daniel Murphy is scheduled to be on the roster.