John Axford -- Hopes better control pays off as Pirates pitcher.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WASHINGTON - At first, John Axford wanted to be a teacher. His interest in a film career, first spurred by his father and indulged by making commercials promoting the prom or rugby matches for his high school's morning announcements, took off after one class at Notre Dame. He cycled through at least two more jobs, cellphone salesman and bartender, before his current one became a reality.
"It's pretty easy to pack it in, especially when you're an undrafted free agent, you don't have any money and you're looking in your bank account every day and you don't see enough in there to take money out," said Axford, a right-handed reliever the Pirates claimed off waivers Thursday. "... For me, it was just grinding away and working as hard as I could."
Axford joined the Pirates in Washington Friday after spending the previous four months with the Cleveland Indians. He began the season as their closer before an inflated walk rate cost him that job in mid-May. Improvement since then made him the desired commodity of a team in a playoff race for the second August in a row: A year ago, the St. Louis Cardinals acquired him from the Milwaukee Brewers one day before the waiver trade deadline.
Thursday, he lied down for a rest, tired from playing with his young sons, JB and Jameson. Shortly after hitting the bed, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti called. Axford was headed to the Pirates, who were looking for relievers who could get outs while trailing and keep games close.
Their middle-relief corps - the weakest unit on every team's pitching staff - has struggled in recent weeks.
"He's got great experience, been through a lot, wants the ball, wants to pitch," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I think he's going to be a healthy addition for our club."
'Been through a lot' is one way to put it. Drafted by two teams, signed by neither, Axford played ball in his native Canada before spending the 2007 season in the New York Yankees minor league system. When they released him that December, he sold cellphones for Telus, working at Best Buys and Wal-marts to make money while simultaneously working out and waiting to earn a bullpen job.
"That was the year before I was a bartender," he said.
Axford served his final drink in March 2009. By that Sept. 15, he was in the major leagues. He took over the closer's role for the Brewers in 2010 from Trevor Hoffman, who he said taught him everything he knows. Twice, Axford has pitched in the postseason, with the Brewers in 2011 and the Cardinals a year ago, when they defeated the Pirates in the National League Division Series before losing the World Series.
He lost his closer's job in mid-May after walking 13 batters in 142?3 innings. Before Friday night, he walked 17 in 29 innings since, a span of about three months.
"I've just really focused on my mechanics, tried to really home in on what I was trying to do each and every pitch, really making sure I kept that focus," he said of the improved control. "I just worked on and off the field a little bit more on my mental side."
Hurdle said the Pirates have some ideas to improve the control, but "I've told him, it's not going to be anything on the mound. We're not going to the other side of the rubber, it's not a wrist or a hand, nothing mechanical."
Though he has found steady work as a pitcher, he still loves movies. His dad indoctrinated him into the classics - "The Good, the Bad and The Ugly," "The Shining," "The Outlaw Josey Wales" - rather than the recently released films. He has taken to predicting the outcome of the Academy Awards and went 18 for 18 this past year.
"It was an easy year this year," he said, noting next year he will make an effort on the harder, more technical categories. Judging by Axford's path to the majors, he does not base his decisions on what is easy.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.
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