John Axford happy to be with Blue Jays after taking break from baseball

MLB insider Arden Zwelling joins Faizal Khamisa to discuss the battle for the Blue Jays final two bullpen spots, with John Axford and Al Alburquerque starting to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — John Axford’s favourite day of the 2017 season came last July in Toronto. It was a Monday, and Axford was in town with the Oakland Athletics to begin a four-game series at Rogers Centre, only an hour and a half away from Port Dover, Ont., where he grew up.

Axford’s parents, Brian and Vera, still live there, and made the drive up the 403 to be with their son. Just as exciting was that Axford had a rare in-season opportunity to see his two boys, JB and Jameson, ages five and six, who live just outside Toronto with their mother. Axford took the boys on a tour of Casa Loma that morning, JB and Jameson wandering around wide-eyed, enthralled with the mansion’s architecture, its gothic chimneys and turrets stretching tall into the sky.

Later that day, everyone was out on Rogers Centre’s sun-splashed turf, JB and Jameson in their full, child-size Athletics uniforms — white pants, white cleats, and all. They hit off a little tee, they tried their best to handle ground balls, they chased after pop-ups their dad sent towering in the air.

When Oakland’s pitchers came out for their pre-game stretch, the boys decided they wanted to participate. So, off they went, joining in rounds of high knees, butt kicks, and balance drills. When Axford jogged to the outfield to run sprints, the boys followed, little legs racing to keep up with their dad as he got in his pre-game work.

Brian has some great videos of it all. Axford still watches them sometimes.

“That was so amazing — just enjoying my kids, their laughter, having fun,” he says. “It was so great seeing how happy they were about it, how much they were smiling.”

The next afternoon, Axford was called into his manager’s office and told he’d been released.

“It was a really sad day,” he says, “and the day before that was one of the greatest I’ve ever had.”

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Those memories with his boys were front of Axford’s mind when he decided shortly after his release he was taking a sabbatical from baseball. He had interest from other teams. Offers to join this outfit or that; to pitch his way to the majors; to get right back on the hamster wheel. Axford wasn’t having any of it. He took the rest of the year off.

“I got to a point where I knew I just needed a break,” he says. “There’s been a lot going on over the last couple years. It was just an opportunity to take a step away, mentally and physically, and take a moment to do my own thing.”

For the first time in a long time, Axford had a summer to himself. He relaxed. He stopped working out. He flew JB and Jameson out to California to be with him. He took them on a vacation to Lake Tahoe. He went to an Athletics game and sat behind the bullpen.

Seriously. John Axford, who only weeks earlier was in an Athletics uniform, purchased a ticket, a hot dog, and a beer, and sat behind Oakland’s bullpen with the same fans he routinely interacted with when he was down below warming up for a game.

“The fans were like, ‘Oh — hi, John,’” he says. “It was pretty interesting. I sat with them, chatted a bit. It was really nice. I’ve never done that before. Not since I’ve been playing professionally, at least. I’ve never actually gone to a Major League Baseball game. It was really cool.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Axford ended up living out his own Into The Wild scenario because not much went right for him last season. By his own estimation he had, “like, two good games in which things worked well.”

His Baseball-Reference page suggests there were more than only two, but perhaps not in excess of 10, as Axford struggled to a 6.43 ERA over 21 innings pitched. His hard-hit rate was only a touch above his career average, but he was getting bled to death most nights, letting some of his far-too-many walks (7.29 BB/9) come around to score on bleeders, bloops and flares.

The entire year got off on the wrong foot, really. After a fine 2016 — in which he posted a 3.97 ERA and 10 K/9 over 65.2 innings — Axford began his 2017 experiencing shoulder discomfort that sent him to the disabled list for the first time in his career before he even threw a regular-season pitch.

Axford blames the issue on being cavalier in the weight room during spring training while he was ramping up his throwing program. An MRI revealed nothing more than a shoulder sprain. But the fact it delayed the start of his season until mid-May, coupled with the realization it was his own fault for lifting too heavily, was demoralizing.

“My first day showing up for rehab, as the team left and went on the road, I wasn’t a very pleased person,” he says. “When you’re getting stronger, getting bigger, progressing — it feels really good when you’re in the weight room and you can lift a bunch of weight. I should’ve taken a step back, but I didn’t want that progress to go away last year. And it was dumb. It really was.”

His velocity was still there when he returned, the ball coming out of his hand at 96 m.p.h. like it always has. He was still able to make all his pitches do all the things he wanted them to do. The results just weren’t there. So, he started tinkering.

“I was giving up hits and I was giving up runs. And I didn’t think I could afford to keep doing that. So, I tried to change the game plan and then things fell completely out of whack for me,” he says. “In all honesty, it was the worst season I’ve had.”

Soon after came that great day in Toronto. And then the one after it when he was released from his two-year, $10-million contract. On the long flight back to Oakland — sitting with suddenly former teammates trying to console him — he started to figure he needed a break from it all. A couple months after that, while the rest of the baseball world was beginning the stretch run, Axford was walking JB and Jameson to their first day of school. Baseball was the last thing on his mind.

It took a while to come around on the idea of playing again. Axford needed the right circumstance. A return to the Athletics was out of the question. But he still had a house in Oakland and thought maybe he could become a San Francisco Giant. It’s just a quick drive over the Bay Bridge.

Then he asked his agent to reach out to the Blue Jays. He knew he wasn’t in any position to make demands after disappearing for a few months. But he was willing to show up to camp and compete if they’d have him. They would.

“The opportunity here seemed to make sense on many levels for me,” Axford says. “One of them, obviously, being able to see my kids and be there more and get to enjoy life with family and friends that you spend most of the off-season with, and then you’re gone from for seven and a half or eight months.

“And it also helps that this is a good team. I think there’s a sneaky good side to this ball club. It’s only a couple years removed from being on the verge of going to the World Series. We have some good players. And contributing to this bullpen in any way that I can is something that I wanted to be a part of.”

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, couldn’t be happier with what Axford’s done so far. In his first three innings, he’s allowed only a hit and two walks, while striking out two. He’s consistently put 96s up on the scoreboard. He’s established himself right at the front of a crowded bullpen battle.

“He’s an interesting guy for me,” says bench coach DeMarlo Hale. “Anytime you can keep the ball on the ground and keep it out of the air, stay away from the home runs, that’s a big factor. Hopefully he can continue on this path.”

“There’s a couple of pitches that we feel could be really effective for him,” adds pitching coach Pete Walker. “And he’s utilizing them this spring. The sink on his fastball is better than I anticipated. And his slider — small slider, cutter, call it what you will — could be a real effective pitch, as well.”

“I like what I’ve seen,” echoes manager John Gibbons. “He’s a tough at-bat. He’s a hometown boy, too. That would be kind of nice, you know? I’m a sentimental guy.”

While the high velocity’s great, what’s really caught the eye of Blue Jays evaluators is Axford’s turn as an extreme ground-ball pitcher. His career ground-ball rate is 50.1 per cent, which is a strong number. But this spring he’s gotten seven of his nine outs on the ground.

“Yeah, I’ve been getting a little tired out there having to run over and cover first so much,” Axford jokes. “But that’s a good thing. Keeping the ball on the ground, that’s important.”

Axford’s ground-ball rates have actually been increasing over the last several seasons. He credits some of it to the two-seam fastball he started toying with in bullpens years ago and introduced to his repertoire in 2016. He started developing it due to an unexpected evolution in his slider, which unintentionally became harder and tighter.

As his slider became more of a cutter, Axford figured the natural thing to do was to introduce the two-seamer to play off of it, as it’s a similar looking pitch out of his hand that moves very differently. He doesn’t even know what to call his 92-m.p.h. cutter-slider anymore, but he does know it’s more effective when hitters are thinking about the threat of his 96-m.p.h. sinker as well.

“It’s just another weapon to use out there, something to go along with the four-seam fastball and the curveball,” he says. “And it’s been feeling really good on the mound.”

Post-sabbatical, Axford has found himself in a much better situation this spring than last. He’s healthy, happy, and having success. A few months off can do wonders for a guy. And if he emerges from Toronto’s bullpen competition and heads north with the club, it’ll be a special moment — not only for him.

Less than a week before spring training began, Axford finalized his minor-league deal with the Blue Jays. That night, he made spaghetti and meatballs for JB and Jameson, and broke the news to them at the dinner table. He said dad was going to be a Blue Jay. And maybe, if things go well, they’ll all get to be back on the turf at Rogers Centre, racing around, chasing pop-ups, and making more memories like on that day in July.

“There was a lot of cheering. Fists were pumping in the air. Food was coming out of their mouths,” Axford says. “It was really nice to be able to tell them that. Just really, really nice.”

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