John Axford doesn’t know where he’d be if it weren’t for Jay Lapp.
In 2008, after his first professional season, the Canadian right-hander was released by the Yankees' organization. At the time, Lapp was an amateur scout for the Brewers whose coverage area included Eastern Canada.
Without an opportunity afforded to him, Axford was looking to create one, and he set up a pseudo tryout of his own ahead of Spring Training. When Mike Havelis -- a friend of Axford’s from Canisius College -- called Milwaukee’s front office to gauge the interest of the Brewers, the information was eventually rerouted to Lapp, who ended up being the only scout to attend. Though Lapp refuses to take any credit for the path of Axford’s career, or the success he had in Milwaukee, both men agree on one thing -- Lapp deserves at least a nod for showing up.
“He’s the one who actually came,” Axford said. “If it wasn’t for that, all the other things that came after, I don’t know if they’d be there.”
“It’s a great story, but in actuality it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done as a scout,” Lapp said. “Tony Blengino, the assistant scouting director at the time, called me and said, ‘Have you ever heard of this guy?’ I told him I had seen him play when he was maybe 15, in Port Dover, Ont., when I worked at the Scouting Bureau, but I hadn’t seen him since. Tony said they’d had some interest when he was at Notre Dame, and did I mind going and watching? This was days before Minor League camp started so we weren’t signing players, we were getting ready to release a boatload of players, so it was more of a courtesy call.”
Over the years, the legend of that courtesy call has grown into tall tales of the treacherous blizzard Lapp fought through to get to that fateful bullpen session, but he’ll tell you wasn’t the case. But it was the reason his radar gun was the only one Axford lit up that day.
“It was one of those Canadian snowfalls that maybe a lot of people wouldn’t want to get out and about in, but if you drive it enough and you’re in Canada and you know the highways, it’s fine,” Axford said. “We had two or three scouts officially confirmed, but there were supposed to be even more coming on top of that, or at least more had called and had interest in coming, and only Jay made it.”
It didn’t take long for Lapp to get excited that he didn’t have any competition.
“He was 92, 93, which at the time was a plus fastball, with a plus breaking ball and a 40 changeup,” he said. “I stood in the box and had him throw 15 pitches or so, right at the end after he was loose, and I had the radar gun on him asking him to throw the pitch here, throw a pitch there, move me off the plate, throw it away, a couple of scenarios, because I knew his issue had been command.”
When Lapp got in the batter’s box, his aim was to challenge Axford’s command. It wasn’t until years later that the evaluator learned that he was also risking his own safety.
“He totally took his life into his hands at that point,” Axford said. “I’ve always been erratic in my pitching, but much more so earlier in college and then post-college, earlier in my career, I was able to wrangle it better. I remember doing it with the Yankees in order to sign for the 2007 season as a non-drafted free agent and the very first batter got in the cage to face me and I threw a 94-mile-an-hour fastball almost at his head. I was trying to throw as hard as I could, and I knocked the guy down.
“So I remember thinking about that, and I might not have even thrown to a catcher that many times at that point [in the offseason] either, maybe netting only, so having a catcher and then having Jay step in, I thought, ‘This is not ideal for him or me right now.’”
Not only did Lapp live to tell the tale, but he immediately knew he wanted to find the righty a home with the Brewers.
“And I walked back to my car and called Tony right away and said, ‘I’d love to sign this guy. He could start in the Florida State League with a chance of getting to Double-A by the end of the season.’ And that was it," Lapp said. "I didn’t say he was going to be our big league closer in three years leading the National League in saves.”
Lapp was sold, but the Brewers needed a little more convincing and wanted Axford to throw for pitching coordinator Jim Rooney in Arizona.
“I told him, ‘Pack a lot of stuff because you’re not coming back,’” Lapp said.
On the back fields at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix, Axford threw a simulated game. In that matchup, he faced fellow Canadian Brock Kjeldgaard, who remembers their time together in the organization well.
“He was good, but he became really good a year and a half later,” Kjeldgaard said. “He struggled the next Spring Training and then had an incredible year.”
Lapp remembers, too. Axford was “a heartbeat away from getting released again,” the scout said, which is why he doesn’t think he should take any credit for what would follow. An early-season adjustment was the difference-maker in Axford’s career trajectory, and that was thanks to Fred Dabney and Lee Tunnell.
“I was 26 and having a disastrous Spring Training and they had me with the Double-A group at the time. They were going to move me to relief but even some of my relief outings were terrible. So they moved me to the A ball side and had me go back as a starter [to] build myself up. It was even worse. I remember my first outing I was supposed to throw three or four innings, and I think I got three outs officially. My first inning was rolled over, my second inning was rolled over, I was taken out and that was it. I gave up a couple doubles off the wall, a home run, I walked a few people, I was just not good.
“But Fred and Lee saw potential they could unlock, so they had me go back to the bullpen. They asked if I knew who Roy Halladay was. And I said, ‘Of course, love him, he’s amazing, he’s the best pitcher in the league right now,’ that sort of thing, and they basically said to pitch like him. They gave me a basic setup and wanted me to talk through what I saw when he pitches, and we started talking about the hip turn and his shoulders being a little bit more forward, and it put me in a better athletic position. I wouldn’t look like him by any means, but I would be more athletic with this hip turn and I wouldn’t be so straight up and down.
“Just in that bullpen session, I started seeing a little more run on my ball, I started staying truer through it, and my velocity went from ranging at times from 89 to 94, to 94 to 96 without issue. My first outing was a couple days later and I was 95, 96 with no problems, feeling great, feeling strong, athletic, and I went from A ball to the big leagues that same year.”
And all Axford needed to get on the fast track was for someone to show up.
“Jay was the only one who showed up,” Axford said. “If I didn’t have that, I honestly have no clue where I would be or what I would be doing, or if I would have continued to play. I probably would have kept trying but I don’t know what would have come after that if nobody showed up that day.”