MILWAUKEE — John Axford had every intention of finishing his season with the Cleveland Indians.
After spending his entire major-league career in the National League Central, the former closer of the Milwaukee Brewers wasn’t planning on returning to the Miller Park mound in the middle of a pennant race.
But everything changed when the Pittsburgh Pirates put in a waiver claim on Axford, and the Indians just let the 31-year-old reliever go without receiving any compensation. With Pittsburgh assuming the roughly $1.1 million remaining on his contract this season, Axford was on his third NL Central team in less than a year.
Since saving 46 games for the Brewers in 2011, Axford has battled inconsistency. An inconsistent reliever with a track record of success usually bounces around the league as teams hope to catch lightning in a bottle.
Without Axford, Milwaukee likely doesn’t win its first-ever NL Central crown in 2011. After blowing a pair of saves in the first two weeks of the season, Axford recorded 43 consecutive saves and finished 2011 with a 1.95 ERA.
He converted his first six save opportunities in 2012 to run his streak to a franchise-record 49 straight saves, but Axford eventually lost his job as closer. He did find his way back into the ninth inning and pitched well late in the year, finishing with 35 saves.
Axford’s disastrous start to 2013 was the beginning of the end for him in Milwaukee. The right-hander blew a save on Opening Day and allowed nine earned runs in his first four appearances. Francisco Rodriguez and Jim Henderson combined for 38 saves, while Axford had a 4.45 ERA when he was dealt to St. Louis for right-hander Michael Blazek on Aug. 30.
While the trade meant leaving a place he was comfortable in, Axford went from a team with no postseason hopes to a contender. He posted a 1.74 ERA in 13 games in September for the Cardinals and pitched in six postseason games, including tossing 2 1/3 scoreless frames in the World Series.
St. Louis declined to offer Axford arbitration in the offseason, making him a free agent. He then signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Indians and began the season as Cleveland’s closer, but lost the job to Cody Allen in May.
Axford converted nine of his first 11 save opportunities but walked 30 batters and had a 3.92 ERA in 43 2/3 innings with Cleveland.
While the Indians currently sit at 68-64 and the Pirates at 69-64, Pittsburgh’s odds of making the postseason seem higher. The Pirates sit just two games back of the second wild card, while Cleveland is four games out in the American League.
When Axford first arrived in Pittsburgh on Aug. 14, the Pirates were tied for the second wild-card spot and the Indians were sitting at .500.
"It’s great to kind of jump back, especially in a division I’m familiar with, teams I’m familiar with, and a team that’s been playing well," Axford said. "We had a rough week, but this team’s been playing some really good baseball all season. Just a slow start, a bad week when I was first traded. Other than that, hopefully just continue the trend that was happening before."
Although he’s been a spectator from another league for most of the season, Axford isn’t surprised to see the Brewers back in the race.
"I mean, they’ve been phenomenal," Axford said of his former team. "They’ve been really, really great. Obviously that insanely hot start was spectacular, but I think it caught a lot of people off guard in the baseball world. This is a good team. It’s been a good team for the last few years. Just unfortunate we had some ups and downs in ’12 and just missed the playoffs in game 157 or 8 or whatever it was that we were finally knocked out.
"Last year it was a lot of injuries. The team was kind of just plagued and couldn’t quite mold it all together as a group. With the guys that are over there, the pitching staff, the offense, that team has the ability to be spectacular and they proved that this year and they did it right out of the gate. So I don’t think it was really a huge surprise, it was just how great it started off for them. It’s a good team and it’s something that I expected in all honesty."
While there were a few boos, Axford received a nice hand from the Miller Park crowd when he took the mound last Friday in the eighth inning of a 8-3 Pittsburgh victory. The Brewers had three hits off their former teammate but only scored one run in the inning.
That happens to be the only run Axford has allowed in five appearances with the Pirates, as he has a 1.93 ERA with just one walk and five strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings. He’s mostly found himself pitching late in games with the Pirates trailing.
"I’m definitely not trying to go for any one job in particular right now," Axford said. "It’s really just about helping the team in whatever possibility or time of the game I can.
"Whether that’s fifth onwards, extra innings, couple innings here and there, wherever I can pick up and whatever I can do to help win and get to the playoffs, that’s what I’m here to do."