Club's scouting reports on former opponent were key to regaining consistency
ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals were more than happy to try to take right-handed relief pitcher John Axford apart when they opposed him. After acquiring him, they have helped put him back together.
Acquired from the Brewers in a trade for pitcher Michael Blazek on Aug. 30, just in time to be eligible for the postseason, Axford posted a 1.74 ERA in the final 13 regular-season games. He has been just as consistent in the postseason, with a 1.59 ERA that includes two scoreless appearances covering 2 1/3 innings in the World Series. Axford and the Cards hope to avoid elimination by winning Game 6 on Wednesday night (air time is 6:30 p.m. CT on FOX; first pitch is at 7:07 p.m.) at Boston's Fenway Park.
Before the trade, Axford had a 4.45 ERA in 62 appearances for the Brewers in a season that saw him lose his closer's job in the first week.
Axford had good and bad times against the Cardinals. Through it all, the Cards were collecting information that has been valuable as Axford, 30, tries to regain the form that helped him earn 81 saves over the 2011 (a National League-leading 46) and '12 seasons.
"I got here with the coaching staff and they worked with me on a couple of things that they've seen scouting me since 2009," Axford said. "They've had these notes, they've had these thoughts. We went over them and I've been working on them since. Plus, having Yadier Molina behind the plate, the confidence he instills in you is great. That's where it's happened."
Axford held the Cardinals scoreless and earned four saves in seven appearances covering seven innings in 2011. In '12, the Cards saddled him with a 10.50 ERA in seven games. This season before the trade, Axford posted a 1.17 ERA against St. Louis in seven games.
But in the past three years, Axford has faced consistent traffic against the Cardinals, regardless the results of the outings -- 14 hits and 14 walks in 14 2/3 innings. It was as if the Cards had a good idea whether to swing.
After the trade, they let Axford in on the secret. He's not giving away the information, since it would be valuable to opponents, but he appreciates what his new club has done for his career.
"There's a small specific thing that I won't mention, but it's something that a team that's scouting you will see, since they're trying to see if you're tipping pitches or doing something a little bit differently," Axford said. "They've been seeing it for the last few years, they've shared it with me and we've worked on it since."
The information took some of the mystery away from Axford's odd 2013 season.
On Opening Day, the Rockies' Dexter Fowler homered on a 95-mph fastball to leave Axford with a blown save in a game the Brewers eventually won. The next night, Michael Cuddyer and Fowler went deep against Axford two batters apart. Cuddyer's homer came on a 92-mph fastball -- a soft pitch for a hurler capable of 98. His next two appearances, against the D-backs and the Cubs, saw him give up five runs in 1 2/3 innings.
Part of the velocity dip came because Axford experienced dead arm, or arm fatigue, after pitching for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, but it took the first month and a half for him to gain consistency. He fashioned a 20 1/3-inning scoreless streak from May 15 to July 2, and yielded one earned run in 28 innings from May 15 to July 24.
With the Brewers having already faded out of contention in the NL Central, Axford was coveted by teams in the race. But he gave up eight hits and five runs in just 1 2/3 innings in the three appearances -- two against the Rockies and one against the Cubs, teams that helped ruin the start of his year -- heading into the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
"I remember those two rough outings, giving up three or four runs in two games," Axford said. "I was thinking, 'Man, this isn't the way to display yourself if you're going to get traded.'"
The inconsistency continued until the trade occurred.
St. Louis has not been using Axford in the most important innings this postseason. His one-hit 11th inning in a 3-2 Cardinals victory over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series is his only appearance in a playoff win. The first-time arbitration-eligible Axford would love to return to the ninth inning, but it appears the Cards' closing future belongs to hard-throwing Trevor Rosenthal.
Regardless, Axford likes St. Louis.
"It feels like the start of the season wasn't even real, like it didn't even happen," Axford said. "This team has been so great with me, bringing me into their clubhouse and into their family, that I feel a part of this longer than I have. To celebrate and enjoy these moments with these guys, it's been great to be a part of this."