May 24, 2016

Mostly sunny

Axford eager to close for Indians


Chris Assenheimer

The Gazette

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — John Axford talks about a number of things that enticed him to sign a free-agent contract with the Indians this offseason. But make no mistake, the hard-throwing right-hander is in Cleveland for one reason and one reason only:

“The main (thing) was obviously that I could close baseball games again,” said Axford, who lost his closer spot in Milwaukee last year after posting at least 35 saves in consecutive seasons from 2011-12. “I felt it was something that I could do. It’s something I wanted to do and something I knew I could do, even last year. It was just tough to try to step into that role when two guys were succeeding in that role with the Brewers in K-Rod (Francisco Rodriguez) and Jim Henderson.”

Axford, 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, was out of a job early last season, when after the Canadian-born pitcher participated in the World Baseball Classic for Team Canada, he struggled at the outset of the season.

The Brewers turned to the closer by committee, and Axford, who set a franchise record with 46 saves (National-League high) for Milwaukee in 2011, never got the opportunity to return to a role he had served in since his rookie season in 2010 — even though he pitched relatively well after stumbling at the start. He was traded to St. Louis at the end of the season, allowing just two earned runs in 13 appearances for the Cardinals.

“Last year, I honestly think the year was pretty decent, other than the first four outings of the season,” said Axford, who went 6-7 with a 4.45 ERA in 62 games for Milwaukee. “I think my arm just really wasn’t prepared. I guess I got ready a little too quick. If I can erase those four (outings), I actually had a pretty decent year, a sub 3.00 ERA and numbers that look a lot better than they do in adding those four.

“Really, it’s just, I think just making sure I stay healthy and stay focused right from the get-go. I’ve always gotten off to a slow start to the season. Now it’s making sure that doesn’t happen.”

The exhibition workload for Axford will likely be limited, as he tries to change his approach to the regular season. He made his debut Friday in Cleveland’s 4-0 win over Cincinnati at Goodyear Ballpark, pitching a scoreless fifth inning with a walk and two strikeouts.

“(He looked) pretty good,” manager Terry Francona said. “The ball came out of his hand well. I thought his ball had a lot of life to it.”

Axford is part of a mini-overhaul in the bullpen, where two-time All-Star closer Chris Perez and elite setup man Joe Smith, among others, no longer reside. The polarizing Perez followed a similar path to Axford, losing his closer job in Cleveland during the final series of the regular season.

“That generally seems to happen with bullpens,” Axford said of the changing faces. “You’re not going to have that main anchor in the back like you’ve had in the past, a Trevor Hoffman with the Padres for 15-16 years, or Mariano Rivera with the Yankees, as long as he was there. Guys seem to bounce around a little bit more.”

Axford is pleased that he wound up landing in Cleveland, where he feels he’s already part of a close-knit group despite just arriving.

“The clubhouse is very big to me,” Axford said. “I like to consider myself a team guy and that’s the way I want to be perceived. Obviously, being in a clubhouse with good teammates is going to make the season that much more fun and that much more enjoyable, when you’re going through it for six-plus months.

“I’m having some fun already. The thing is everyone is close in that sense. Nothing’s forced. It’s all kind of natural to everybody, and I’m looking forward to it and enjoying it.”

The Indians were a loose bunch with little expectations during Francona’s debut season last year, but after winning the AL’s top wild-card spot, missing the postseason in 2014 would be a disappointment.

“Yes, but nothing too over the top right now,” Axford said of expectations for the Indians this season. “It doesn’t seem like there’s any added pressure. Maybe it’s just because I’m new. No one’s really pressuring themselves. No one’s talking about October or anything already. It’s getting prepared right now for spring training, getting ready for the season, and taking it kind of one step at a time, and having fun doing it.”

Contact Chris Assenheimer at (440) 329-7136 or Fan him on Facebook and follow him @CAwesomeheimer.