CHICAGO — Saturday, a bullpen day for the Toronto Blue Jays, was always going to be the best big-league start of John Axford’s life. That’s because the career reliever had never made one before. Over his decade in the majors, Axford has appeared in 537 games out of the bullpen. Only eight pitchers in MLB history have made more than 530 appearances before earning their first start. Axford is now one of them.
And while Axford’s outing was portrayed as a bit of fun in a lost season — a fitting reward for a good-natured, hard-working Canadian who has been a positive influence on the club both on and off the field — don’t think the Blue Jays weren’t hoping to showcase the 35-year-old’s ability to go multiple innings in the process, with an eye toward Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline.
And Axford provided exactly the kind of advertisement the Blue Jays were hoping for, facing the minimum over a career-high three innings to begin Saturday’s 9-5 loss to the Chicago White Sox. He threw 38 pitches (24 strikes) in all, two shy of the season-high 40 he threw during an outing earlier this year in Anaheim.
Axford started five of the nine batters he faced with strikes, and allowed only a weakly-hit infield single, which he eventually erased with a double play. Of course, it was only the lowly White Sox, who boast a bottom-10 offence. But watching Axford deal Saturday, it wasn’t hard to imagine him doing something similar for a contender this fall. The Blue Jays hope the scouts in attendance — and the forward-thinking front offices they serve — saw the same thing.
You know those eight relievers who appeared in more than 530 games before their first start? Axford was the third to do it this season. Tampa Bay’s Sergio Romo (588) and the New York Mets’ Jerry Blevins (532) also accomplished the feat this year, as bullpen usage across MLB has evolved from its traditional mores.
It’s hardly strange to see relievers start games these days. In turn, it’s exceedingly rare that a starting pitcher gets through a lineup three times. And come October, bullpen management will veer even more towards the unconventional. Closers will enter games in the sixth and seventh innings as bench bosses manage to leverage rather than roles. Relievers accustomed to pitching for a single frame will be asked to get upwards of three outs.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s utilizing relievers in a better role and a better position, trying to put your team in position to win the best way it can,” Axford said. “Whatever you can do to utilize your pitching staff to win a ballgame, I think you need to do it. Going to a reliever early, getting a guy that can throw two innings, getting a guy that can throw an inning-plus in the bullpen, it’s something that’s worked. I think the fine line is just the overuse, making sure that that’s not happening.
“I think people got pretty excited seeing that happen in the playoffs a couple years ago. And it really, I think, started this downhill effect of that happening a little bit more.”
Remember the way the Cleveland Indians used Andrew Miller the last two post-seasons? He’s gotten six outs or more in eight of his 14 playoff appearances since 2016, often entering in the eighth inning with a slim lead. And perhaps you recall how the Los Angeles Dodgers deployed Kenley Jansen throughout the club’s 2017 playoff run. Twice last October, the regular-season closer was asked to make a full trip through the opposition’s lineup.
Axford was a traditional ninth-inning closer when he pitched in the post-season with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011, and strictly a one-inning arm when he returned to the playoffs with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013. But that was a different time. Today, he’s as aware as anyone of how bullpen usage has evolved, and how valuable multi-inning relief can be in the modern game.
“When I was closing, things seemed a lot more black and white, cut and dry. You had your seventh-, eighth-inning guys,” Axford said. “Now, it’s a lot of matchups, a lot of analytics, a lot of focus on some numbers that weren’t part of the attention before, because we didn’t have the knowledge or the understanding quite yet as to what they meant.
“As a reliever, it’s all about knowing your physical abilities, what you’re capable of and what you can do,” Axford continued. “Like today. I was really open with the staff. And they were open with me about how things were going, how I felt — which enabled me to throw three innings. Now, if they came to me tomorrow and said, ‘hey, can you give us another?’ It would be a no.”
With all that in mind, the Blue Jays were no doubt happy to showcase Axford’s ability to pitch effectively across multiple innings. Possessing premium velocity — his fastball sat 94-95 m.p.h. Saturday, touching 97 — and wicked movement on his two-seamer, Axford is exactly the kind of pitcher who can thrive in that role come the post-season.
Of course, every non-contending team has relievers to offer at this time of year. But Axford’s performance Saturday could elevate him from the pack. And the Blue Jays attempted to provide teams with a similar look at fellow reliever Tyler Clippard later in the game, asking him to get the final out of the sixth inning before pitching the entirety of the seventh.
The results, however, were not as inspiring. Clippard got Jose Abreu to fly out with a runner on to complete the sixth, and came back to strike out the first batter of the seventh. But he then left an 0-2 splitter on the plate to Nicky Delmonico, who hit it 375 feet over the wall in right. It was the 10th home run the flyball-prone Clippard has allowed in 49.2 innings this season, raising his HR/9 to 1.81 and his HR/FB rate to 13.3 per cent, the highest of his career.
Clippard allowed another run later in the inning, and has now surrendered runs in three of his last five outings. That isn’t what the Blue Jays want to see from a reliever the club would like to move ahead of the deadline. Aaron Loup, also on the trade block, at least showed well prior to Clippard’s appearance, allowing only a single while retiring two of the three hitters he faced, each batting right-handed.
Meanwhile, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. continued his prolific tear with a pair of singles in the early going. That gave him the franchise record for consecutive multi-hit games with 10, surpassing Blue Jays legend Tony Fernandez, who held it for more than three decades.
The last player across baseball to do it was Bernie Williams in 2002. Only six players in MLB history have longer streaks of multi-hit games, while Rogers Hornsby holds the record with 13 in 1923.
“It’s getting historic,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “It’s so hard to get hits in the big leagues. And what’s that, 10 games now? Multi-hit games? Yeah, that’s pretty incredible. I’ve never seen it. I mean, how many guys in history have done it? He’s getting up there with the big boys. And, you know what? It wouldn’t surprise me if he keeps doing it.”
Unfortunately for Gibbons, the rest of his bullpen couldn’t follow Axford’s lead, as the six relievers that came in after the starter combined for only 4.2 innings, allowing nine runs. The bulk of the damage was done when the White Sox staged a comeback in the eighth inning, plating six runs off Jaime Garcia and Ryan Tepera.
Garcia threw only six of his 14 pitches for strikes, and was lifted after earning just an out against the three batters he faced. And yet, that was one more out than Tepera mustered, as he hit a pair of batters and allowed three hits, including a bases-loaded triple to Leury Garcia that blew the game open.
Tepera entered the outing with a 2.74 ERA on the season. It was 3.59 by the time he exited. While Axford began the night with an exceptional outing, Tepera ended it with anything but. Such is life for volatile big-league relievers. Some days you have it, some days you don’t. And on bullpen days, you’re prone to see both.
“That’s what makes it tough when you get into these bullpen games,” Gibbons said. “You roll the dice, try to win that game — and then if you don’t, you’re probably screwed the next day with your pen anyway.
“So, we’re screwed tomorrow with our pen.”