Axford reunion shuttered by elbow injury

August 4th, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- An MRI scan of ’s right elbow revealed significant structural damage, and the veteran right-hander won’t pitch again in 2021, Brewers manager Craig Counsell said Wednesday.

It was a sad ending to what was an uplifting comeback story on Monday, when the Brewers traded $1 to the Blue Jays for 38-year-old Axford and brought their single-season saves leader back to Milwaukee for the first time since 2013.

Axford started this season as a TV broadcaster for the Blue Jays, but drew scouts’ notice while pitching for Team Canada in Olympic qualifying. He made his first Major League appearance of the season on Monday night against the Pirates, only to injure his elbow in the process.

Axford was charged with two runs on a hit batsman, two singles and a run-scoring walk while recording one out. His last pitch was 92.4 mph, after which he signaled to the bench for an athletic trainer.

“There’s damage to his elbow that’s going to prevent him from pitching this year,” Counsell said. “It’s significant, and he’s kind of mulling through his options right now.”

Asked if that implied there was damage to Axford’s ulnar collateral ligament, Counsell said, “Yeah, there’s multiple things going on, yeah.”

It’s not the ending anyone wanted for one of the good guys in Brewers history. The Brewers signed Axford in 2007 when their scout was the only one who braved a snowstorm to watch him throw. He was in the Majors by 2009 and became Milwaukee’s closer by 2010. In 2011, Axford logged 46 saves for a Brewers team that came within two wins of the World Series.

Only Dan Plesac (133 saves) has more saves for the Brewers than Axford (106).

“He was climbing a tall hill,” Counsell said. “What he was doing was really hard to do. He got really far up the hill, and then the last part just ended up being too tough.”

Praise for Houser
Counsell’s decision to pull Adrian Houser while he was pitching a no-hitter in the seventh inning of Tuesday’s loss to the Pirates was perfect fodder for water cooler debate on Wednesday morning, but lost in the hubbub was this: Houser has taken a big step forward this season.

The 28-year-old Oklahoman passed the 100-inning threshold with 6 1/3 innings on Monday and sports a 3.55 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP in 2021. In 56 innings last season, he had a 5.30 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP.

It’s easy to overlook his development when Houser is pitching in the shadows of the Brewers’ All-Star trio of Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta.

“That was Adrian’s challenge coming into the season. I think he knew that,” Counsell said. “His motivation, a little but -- not motivation, but it’s to keep up. To make himself part of this group. He does it kind of quietly. Those three have been so spectacular, they really have, that it’s OK the way this has happened. But Adrian has taken a huge step forward this year. I think we see it. He’s pitching at a really high level.”

Houser’s next step is to limit free passes. His walk rate has actually gone up this season, from 3.4 walks per nine innings in 2020 to 4.2 walks per nine innings in ’21. He walked five batters on Monday without allowing a hit.

“When I got those walks going, I just wasn't able to command my pitches the way that I wanted to; I wasn't able to hit my spots, and I was putting guys on base,” Houser said. “It's something I'll work on in my next bullpen and try to stop the walks in their tracks where they are now.”

Last call
• Yes, the Brewers have considered a promotion for Minor League right-hander Luke Barker, a terrific Minor League performer with a 1.84 ERA in 50 appearances at Triple-A the past two seasons. Asked why Barker hasn’t had a shot in the big leagues with the Brewers dealing with so much pitching turnover, Counsell said, “I’ll tell you, we’ve talked about Luke Barker. I think the 40-man roster, that’s an issue for sure, that’s part of it. It always is part of it, but he’s pitched well enough that he’s certainly been in the conversations, yeah.”

• MLB released its tentative 2022 regular season schedule on Wednesday, and the Brewers open and close the 2022 season at domed American Family Field, which is good news for the team lining up the pitching the way they want it. Opening Day against Arizona on March 31 will mark the ninth time in 11 years that the Brewers begin the season at home.

• The Brewers' 2021 first-round pick Sal Frelick and third-round pick Alex Binelas (of Oak Creek, Wis.) made their professional debuts on Tuesday night for the "Brewers Gold" team in the Arizona Complex League. Frelick went 2-for-3 with a run and an RBI while playing five innings in center field. Binelas played five innings at third base and had two assists while going 1-for-3 with an RBI at the plate.