ST. LOUIS, Mo. — When the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline passed and John Axford had not been moved, he thought he would remain with the Brewers for the rest of the season.
“I was expecting (a trade) around the All-Star break or the deadline,” the right-handed pitcher said. “A lot of people around baseball thought it was going to happen. When it didn’t, I went, OK, I guess I’m going to be here for the last couple of months.”
So imagine his surprise two nights before the Sept. 1 deadline. As he was finishing buttoning his shirt and about to get on the team bus following the final game of a series at Pittsburgh, he was called in to see manager Ron Roenicke, pitching coach Rick Kranitz and special assistant Craig Counsell.
“I knew,” Axford said. “Before they said anything, I said, ‘Really? It’s happening now?'”
“Yes, Ax,” he was told. “You’ve just been traded to the Cardinals.”
His response: “The Cardinals, wow. I couldn’t believe I was traded to a division rival. But going to a first-place team was fantastic.”
As it turned out, Axford could not have picked a better destination — and not only because of the playoff possibilities. He has close friends who live in St. Louis who always showed him a good time when he visited with the Brewers. He’s tried more restaurants and visited more drinking establishments than many locals.
“This was a city that I really enjoyed,” Axford said. “Some of my best friends live here and there is a familiarity with the city. It’s the city I had the most knowledge about other than Milwaukee. It also was a team I was familiar with from playing against so much. It actually was a perfect opportunity.”
Axford, who lost his job as the Brewers’ closer early in the season, found another reason to be glad to land with the Cardinals in his first meeting with his new coaching staff. The Cardinals gave him some pitching advice — the specifics of which he declined to discuss — that he says immediately helped his performance.
“When a team has been looking at you for five years, trying to kill you every single time you’re out there on the mound, they pick up on every little detail they can — what you may be showing, or tipping, or what you’re doing different,” Axford said. “That’s been a great thing coming here. It’s been a process working on a couple of small things. The more I get out there on the mound, the better it feels. The last few outings I have been feeling great, especially the last two.”
In those past two one-inning stints, Axford has allowed one hit in each and struck out five. In his six outings with the Cardinals before Friday night’s game against Seattle, Axford had been scored on in two, both times giving up one run. While he still ranks no better than fifth in the bullpen pecking order, Axford has provided the veteran arm and flexibility the Cardinals were seeking.
The 30-year-old Canadian’s stay in St. Louis might not last long, though. Axford will be arbitration-eligible for the second time and figures to earn a raise from his $5 million salary. The Cardinals aren’t likely to pay close to that, considering the number of strong, young arms already on the roster. Plus, Jason Motte will be due $7 million as he comes back from Tommy John surgery.
“I really have no idea and I’m not looking at it too much right now,” Axford said. “I’m going to enjoy my time in St. Louis as I have been, enjoy this team and enjoy this run at the NL Central. Hopefully we can win a division, get into the playoffs and win a World Series. That’s what I’m looking forward to right now.”
With that kind of mindset, no wonder he’s fit in so well.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.