MILWAUKEE -- John Axford, the Brewers’ single-season saves leader who reminded everyone to always leave a note, made it back in the big leagues at age 38.
The Brewers acquired Axford from the Blue Jays on Monday for $1, according to the Associated Press, and when he trotted in from the bullpen to a standing ovation in the ninth inning against the Pirates for his first Brewers appearance in nearly eight years and his first Major League appearance in three years, it was something straight out of the movies. But there was no Hollywood ending, at least not yet.
Axford recorded only one out and left the mound with Milwaukee’s assistant athletic trainer. Manager Craig Counsell said Axford experienced pain in the back of his right elbow while throwing the final handful of his 22 pitches and would undergo an MRI scan on Tuesday morning.
“It’s not the way you want it to go,” Counsell said. “It’s unfortunate. The fact that he got himself back here was a real credit to him. You want the story to be good every night. Sometimes, there’s some unfortunate stories as well.”
The MLB Trade Deadline passed last week, but clubs may still swap players on Minor League contracts who were not on a 40-man roster at any point this season, as was the case with Axford.
Heck, forget 40-man rosters. Axford started this season in the TV studio, providing analysis for Blue Jays telecasts at the start of the year. He had not pitched in the Majors since 2018 and had not pitched in the Minors since before the pandemic, but he got his arm in shape to pitch for Team Canada in the Olympic qualifiers in May. He touched 98 mph, according to scouts, and just like that, a comeback was underway that led him back to the big leagues and the team for whom he had his most success.
"Honestly, I'm still trying to fathom a lot of it," Axford told MLB.com just after touching down in Milwaukee on Monday morning. "I don't know if the Brewers were really on my radar at the time of trying to see if getting back to the big leagues again was going to work for me this year, and it pulled together very quickly, so I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I know when I get to the ballpark and see that uniform again, the emotions will start spilling over, that's for sure.
“This is quite the thing right now. I'm nearly speechless. I'm still trying to figure it all out."
Axford is famously a film buff, known for posting his Academy Awards predictions on Twitter with incredibly accurate results. When it was suggested that his story was straight out of a movie, he said, “I guess it could be. Hopefully, the movie can just keep going a little bit longer.”
Axford was granted No. 59 by bench coach Pat Murphy, the number Axford wore while amassing 106 saves for the Brewers over five seasons with the club from 2009-13, including a club-record 46 saves in 2011 when the Brewers made it to their first League Championship Series in 29 years. He converted 49 straight save opportunities between 2011-12, and when he had to hastily depart for the airport the night the streak ended because his pregnant wife was having contractions, he left a note for reporters apologizing for his absence that ended, “All I can do is begin another streak and keep my head up. Cliché … cliché … another cliché … Gotta go! Love, Ax.”
Only Dan Plesac has more saves in Brewers history, with 133, and that’s a fitting comp because both men have worked in TV this year. Axford traded his suit and tie for a uniform with Team Canada, then signed a Minor League contract with the Blue Jays on June 24 and posted a 0.84 ERA and two saves in nine relief appearances at Triple-A Buffalo, holding opponents to a .061 batting average in 10 2/3 innings.
It's happened fast.
“I was going to be an analyst [on TV]. That was the job,” Axford said. “I was there for Opening Day with the Blue Jays. I was supposed to pick up some more games in the second half. They knew I was preparing for Team Canada. They knew I was playing in the qualifier.
“It wasn’t until I was there and I was throwing 95-96 and then 96-98 that, oh wow, the stuff was still kind of here. I felt physically great. Teams became interested.”
Toronto made sense because if Axford, a Canadian, made it to the Majors, he could play in his home country once the Blue Jays returned home. That was particularly important for his family, given the added complications presented by the pandemic.
But despite his success in the Minors, the Blue Jays have stockpiled a number of relievers and didn’t have a spot in the big leagues for Axford, so he began exploring opportunities and found one with the Brewers, who have placed four relievers on the COVID-19 injured list in the past three days, including closer Josh Hader on Monday, and were in particular need of a right-handed arm. Given the restrictions in acquisitions following the Trade Deadline, it led them to Axford.
The Brewers tried to trade for Axford before the Deadline in a Minor League sway, president of baseball operations David Stearns said, but it didn’t happen, because they did not have an immediate Major League opportunity to offer at the time.
As of Monday, they did.
“It is a wonderful story,” Stearns said, “but he is here because we believe he can help get Major League hitters out at a time when we need arms in our bullpen.”
A few hours later, Axford’s future was clouded by injury. Topping out at 95.6 mph, he hit Bryan Reynolds to open the ninth inning and retired John Nogowski on a flyout. The next two batters singled to load the bases for Ben Gamel’s run-scoring walk on four straight fastballs. The last registered 92.4 mph.
Another run scored after Axford’s departure, but Brad Boxberger finished a 6-2 Brewers win.
Including Monday’s outing, Axford owns a 3.90 lifetime ERA and 144 saves in 544 games for the Brewers, Cardinals, Cleveland, Pirates, Rockies, A’s, Blue Jays and Dodgers.
It all started with the Brewers -- the only team to brave a snowstorm to see him throw in 2007 after he’d been released by the Yankees. He was working as a cell phone salesman and bartender to make ends meet for his family at the time, but by 2009, he was in Milwaukee being mentored by Trevor Hoffman. By 2010, he’d supplanted Hoffman as the Brewers' closer.
“The first time he got here, he had a great story,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, a former teammate. “Ax is a guy who perseveres, and he's a guy who's never taken his opportunity to play baseball for granted. He's had some roadblocks along the way like most players do, but he's kept going.”