ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Players set goals for themselves every spring, hopeful that they’ve made the physical, mechanical or mental changes that will allow them to reach their full potential.
Once the rhythm of the regular season resumes, though, those players are often pretty much the same guys as before. It’s hard to change who you are at the highest level, no matter how much muscle you’ve added or video you’ve watched.
That’s what makes the case of John Axford stand out. Before the season, the 35-year-old reliever expressed growing confidence in his two-seam fastball and hope that it would allow him to rebound from a tough 2017. To this point in the year, that’s exactly what has happened. Axford has used his two-seam fastball more than ever on his way to becoming a valuable contributor for a Blue Jays team that has had to rely heavily on its bullpen.
“It’s how we envisioned it when we started discussing it in spring training,” Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said. “The two-seamer’s been huge for him. He’s extremely aggressive with it and I can see his confidence rising on the mound.”
Axford has doubled his two-seamer usage this year and now throws the pitch 74 per cent of the time. It heads toward the plate at 96 m.p.h. — a slight increase compared to last year, when he missed time with a shoulder injury — so it’s not always easy to command. But when the pitch is at its best, Axford can use it to generate quick outs.
Thursday was one of those days. Axford pitched a career-high 2.1 innings in Cleveland, partly because the pitch was effective.
“I could feel where the two-seamer was going,” he said. “So I was able to attack and get ahead.”
The Blue Jays rotation has struggled this year, creating a need for some extended relief outings. Without an obvious long reliever available, the Blue Jays have turned to Axford in situations where they have needed multiple innings.
“He’s such a big, strong guy,” manager John Gibbons said. “You don’t see any dropoff either. But shoot, he’s having a great year. His command — it’s really been good.”
Pitching multiple innings isn’t new to Axford, who logged more than three outs on 13 different occasions during his 2010 breakout season with the Brewers. This year the Blue Jays have asked Axford to pitch two innings three different times, often keeping him in the game when his first inning’s particularly efficient. On Thursday, for example, an effective two-seamer allowed him to record seven outs on just 18 pitches.
“It could be the most efficient I’ve ever been, actually, in my big-league career,” Axford said.
It’s a different role for a longtime closer with 144 career saves to his name, but Axford enjoys contributing in this way.
“You take a certain amount of pride being able to do what the team needs me to do. We needed to cover some innings and save some arms,” he said. “For me that’s what it’s about is being able to pick up the other guys.”
In 14 total appearances, Axford has a 1.65 ERA and a 54 per cent ground-ball rate with 15 strikeouts compared to six walks. The Blue Jays like what they see from a pitcher who arrived at spring training on a minor-league deal with no assurances of making the big-league roster.
“Right now he’s comfortable in his delivery,” Walker said. “He’s comfortable with his pitch arsenal. He’s pounding the zone. He’s focused on attacking the strike zone. The two-seamer’s been tremendous for him — the action on the ball, the movement.”
If these early results offer an indication of what the two-seamer can do, Axford will take it.
“I feel confident and good out there on the mound,” Axford said. “I do feel good with how things have been going. Obviously there have been nights where maybe things are moving too much and I can’t quite figure out what it is to help that, but overall I’m pleased with it.”