Axford is Brewers’ unquestioned closer now

PHOENIX (AP) — John Axford was fighting food poisoning last spring, leaving the Milwaukee Brewers uncertain about his future with the team. After a breakthrough season, they no longer have any doubts about the tall Canadian closer.

“Command wasn’t good, velocity wasn’t good, so we weren’t sure,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke recalled. “You can’t make quick judgments at spring training.”

There’s no questioning the 6-foot-5 right-hander’s command or velocity now.

“He throws 98. He sits upper 90s,” catcher Jonathan Lucroy said Wednesday. “He has two-plus off-speed pitches, secondary pitches with his curveball and slider. Coupled with that, he’s 6-5, he’s nasty and throws strikes.

“With the movement he has and with the ability he has to throw strikes with those pitches, I think he’s just devastating,” Lucroy added.

Axford had a franchise-record 46 saves last year, converting his last 43 chances to set another team record. He was 2-2 with a 2.26 ERA in 73 2-3 innings in 74 appearances to help the Brewers win the NL Central.

“His stuff’s electric. It really is,” Roenicke said. “He’s got a tremendous fastball with life on it that he commands well. He’s got a punchout slider and a punchout curveball. So, the combination of those three things, if he’s throwing strikes, I expect him to close every game he’s out there. That’s what I expect.

“Is it fair to say he’s going to do it all the time? No, but I expect him to,” Roenicke said.

The 29-year-old Axford, signed as a free agent in 2008 after he was released by the New York Yankees, has been sharp early in spring training.

“It’s going really well,” Axford said. “I feel really good.”

He’s set for a live bullpen session Thursday and expects to pitch Sunday in the exhibition opener against San Francisco.

“It’s amazing how short the offseason is,” Axford said. “I’m definitely looking forward to getting back on the mound.”

Milwaukee won 96 games last year and got by Arizona before losing in the NL championship series to division rival and eventual World Series champion St. Louis. During the offseason, slugger Prince Fielder left for Detroit in free agency, a loss Axford thinks could lead to more save opportunities.

“We might have some closer games, some tighter games this year. Maybe that bodes well for me down there in the ninth,” Axford said. “I think this team showed more toward the end we really thrive in tough situations and tough games. We tend to pull out a lot of those close ones in the end.”

He was asked if ongoing contract negotiations might be a distraction.

“Not to me, at all,” Axford said.

Axford teams with longtime closer Francisco Rodriguez to give the Brewers one of the strongest late-inning tandems in baseball.

“I used to get the jitters back there around the seventh inning, but last year and this year I’m very confident,” Lucroy said. “Our eighth inning and ninth inning are pretty much shutdown time.”

Lucroy enjoys working with the mellow Axford.

“He’s just laid back and a relaxed guy,” the catcher said. “Same thing with Frankie. They’re pretty similar guys. They joke around and mess around. I don’t think all closers are crazy phychos like we’re led to believe.”