Despite his midseason struggles, Brewers closer John Axford never lost confidence in himself.
By ANDREW GRUMANFS Wisconsin
MILWAUKEE -- In the game of baseball, struggles are inevitable.
The game requires players to learn from their miscues, but also to have an ability to let go of the past and forget about it.
Nobody knows this better than a closer. With his team so close to winning when he appears in the game, failures are magnified tenfold.
John Axford knows this better than anyone. Coming off one of the best seasons by a reliever in team history in 2011, Axford had a roller coaster of a yearin 2012. After a few early season struggles, he bounced back in May, only to have the coaster hit a downward spiral in June, July and August, causing him to lose his job as Milwaukee's closer.
When nobody else could fill the role adequately, Axford stepped up and asked manager Ron Roenicke for his job back. The skipper obliged and Axford didn't let him down, saving 17 of his 18 chances in September and October.
The late run helped Axford lower his season ERA to 4.67, still drastically higher than the 1.95 he posted in 2011. The Brewers still believe in him – often referencing the fact Axford has the second most saves in the major leagues over the last two seasons.
As he heads into 2013 as the team's closer again, Axford is trying to put the past behind him, but still remembering the lessons he learned from a trying season. While getting back on track and saving as many games as he did late in the season was important to go into the offseason with, Axford says it wasn't really a confidence booster because he never lost confidence in his ability to get the job done.
"I don't think it was ever a matter of confidence, in all honesty," Axford said. "Certain games you try to figure things out, and you are wondering why?"
And often times during the roughest stretches he did just that: Wonder why things got so out of hand during the middle of the season.
"I can definitely look back at certain games and think if that ball was just hit six feet the other way on the ground, it would be a different story," Axford said. "Same with this one, if this pop-up was not off the tip of the glove or if it was just over here instead or if I hit the corner better or if I threw the slider.
"You can always nit-pick those things and some things do wind up to be bad luck. Toward the end it was still a great boost of confidence, it never left me, but going through that when we did and battling as a team together, and I felt like I was really enjoying myself and helping a lot. It was definitely a good thing to go into the offseason with."
Axford wasn't alone in his struggles in Milwaukee's bullpen last season, as the Brewers bullpen finished last in the league with a 4.66 ERA and had the most blown saves in baseball with 29.
The end result was a complete dismantling of the unit, leaving Axford as the only remaining member of last season's Opening Day bullpen. Gone are Francisco Rodriguez, Kameron Loe, Manny Parra and Jose Veras, replaced with Tom Gorzelanny, Michael Gonzalez and Burke Badenhop.
"It's quite a bit of turnover but it's nice to change faces sometimes too. I think it will be a nice refreshing bullpen and a refreshing feel down there," Axford said.
As the elder statesman in terms of time spent in Milwaukee's bullpen, Axford is looking to grab even more of a leadership role this season. Started as "Camp Hoffman" by former Brewers and future Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman, Axford continued the tradition of daily bullpen workouts and wants to keep the tradition alive even with the turnover.
The challenge for Axford will be to mesh the new faces with himself and fellow holdover Jim Henderson.
"I think we really try and keep it as tight knit and as close as we can because we are around each other so much that it's nice to be able to hold the bar over ourselves so we know what we can do and know what we can accomplish," Axford said. "If everyone is kind of tired after this flight, maybe you don't want to run as much that day. It's easy for us to be able to dictate that."
As the leader of the group, he's open to new ideas and different voices stepping forward to help the group.
"There's a lot refreshing faces, and it is going to be great to really feed off each other in that way," Axford said. "That's why it is difficult to change as many faces as we have, but sometimes its good because you get to understand different personalities of the different of players."
Through all the changes, Axford remains the most important piece in whether Milwaukee's bullpen bounces back.
His season will start earlier than usual, as Axford will join Henderson to anchor Canada's bullpen in the World Baseball Classic. He feels playing in more meaningful games earlier in the calendar will help him be ready when the season starts.
"It's nice to get that little extra anxiousness and play for something that's important during the spring," Axford said. "I think it gets your mindset a little bit different too."
During the past few weeks, Axford posted numerous pictures of meaningful moments in his life on his social networking accounts. The most telling photo was of a training guide for a server's job at a restaurant where Axford was working five years ago.
While he's a long way from taking orders, he enters an important year of his career. Without a long term contract, Axford needs to prove that the fluke year was 2012 and not 2011.
Through the ups and downs of his baseball career, he's always found a way to fight through. Now he's just hoping to do it again.
"You need a short term memory," Axford said. "You just need to let go of it, there's no need to focus on the past and what's happened before, but you can use it as motivation."