A leader in the bullpen and in the clubhouse, Axford’s presence will be missed by those he impacted the most.
“Pretty shocking, but great opportunity for him,” Brewers closer Jim Henderson said. “I’m really excited for him. He’s a good friend and was a good teammate throughout his time here. I’m excited he will be back in the playoffs. Too bad it’s with the Cardinals.”
Not only did Henderson and Axford have lockers next to each other, but the two Canadian relievers became close friends despite one losing his job to the other. Axford learned a lot of his professional habits from legendary closer Trevor Hoffman and repaid the debt by passing what he learned on to Henderson.
“It’s hard to explain (what he meant to me),” Henderson said “He took me under his wing when I was up here last year, on and off the field. I think more off the field. Just his personality with the media, how he handles himself as a big leaguer every day just kind of taught me the ways. I went up to him last night on the plane and just thanked him for that mostly. Thanks for just helping me out in every way possible.”
While Axford certainly had his struggles over the past two seasons, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke will remember him as the dominant closer who helped Milwaukee to the playoffs in 2011. Without the lights-out tandem of Francisco Rodriguez and Axford in the eighth and ninth innings, the Brewers probably wouldn’t have reached the National League Championship Series.
That season, Axford saved a franchise-record 46 games and blew just two saves in the regular season. After blowing a save April 18th in Philadelphia, Axford recorded 43 consecutive saves. He finishes his career second all-time in franchise history with 106 career saves, only trailing Dan Plesac’s 133.
“Obviously with my first year and what he did for us, hey, he was a big reason — maybe one of the main reasons — why we got to the playoffs, why we did well in the playoffs,” Roenicke said. “And I like him. You guys all talked to him — he’s a nice guy. He’s fun to have a conversation with. So it’s always tough when you like a player and he’s performed really well for you and done some great things here.
“This year was a little tough for him. He was really good at times and he really struggled at times. I think probably a new atmosphere and going with a team that should get into the playoffs, I would think, should be a great opportunity for him to go and get it back together again.”
Axford lost his job as closer in early April of this season after allowing nine earned runs in his first 3 1/3 innings. He then settled in and tossed 23 straight scoreless outings and didn’t allow an earned run in June. Instead of building on his progress, Axford took a step back and reverted to his struggles in July and August.
“He was hard to figure out this year,” Roenicke said. “When he got going well again I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be good. He’s going to maintain this through the rest of the year.’ And then all of a sudden he’d go out there one game and his command would go on him. Not command that he would walk everybody — command just in the zone where everything was right down the middle and they were taking good swings at him. So that part was a little hard to figure out. And then I think he lost a little confidence last year. And once your confidence goes, then it gets tough to get it back. He did, and then he lost it again.”
Despite his struggles at times in 2012 and 2013, Axford was a standup guy in the clubhouse. He never shied away from talking to the media when things weren’t going well, something he learned from Hoffman.
When his consecutive regular season saves streak was snapped at 49 games in May of 2012, Axford wasn’t there to talk to the media. He had a good reason though, as his wife, Nicole, had gone into labor. Although he didn’t have to, Axford left a note to the media explaining why he wasn’t there to answer questions.
“Just with the leadership that he brings as far as being a professional and a teammate, it’s a big loss,” Brewers reliever Brandon Kintzler said. “I was fortunate to learn from him the last parts of three or four years to learn how you go about your business . . . It’s just something that you can’t teach, it’s something that he had. We’re going to try to take that with us young guys and teach whatever we can.
“He did it the right way. He learned from Hoffman, and Hoffman always did it the right way. Ax, no matter good or bad, he was always going to be the same guy. I thanked him last night for everything he’s taught me and for being a great teammate. He’ll be highly missed and we’ll see him down the road.”
Kintzler, who is now the active leader in relief appearances with Milwaukee with 87, was standing next to Axford in the visiting clubhouse in Pittsburgh when he was informed he was traded. Roenicke then addressed the team, and Axford flew back to Milwaukee with the team before turning right back around to meet the Cardinals in Pittsburgh.
“He looked really shocked,” Kintzler said ” . . . I sensed something was going to be happen. This was his family for a long time, you are going to be shocked for a while. Then it is going to sink in that you have a chance to go to the playoffs and then you are going to get excited again. I’m sure he’s excited today.
“That’s what’s crazy about this game. You have close friends and you make best friends with everyone, everyone’s wives and families are friends. Then the next day you are gone and you may not see the guy for a long time. Baseball is a crazy game. It’s a crazy business.”
Over the past month, the Brewers have lost two of the bullpen’s most active leaders in Rodriguez and Axford. Kintzler feels veteran lefty Michael Gonzalez will assume a lot of the leadership duties, while Henderson expects to fill some of the void left by Axford’s departure.
“He’s got 10 years in the big leagues and has done everything,” Kintzler said of Gonzalez. “He’s a guy that will step up if he has to. Axford took a backseat to Gonzalez a little bit. Axford was always the guy that would come to you quietly, never in front of anybody. He’ll be missed. I’m happy for him that he gets to be in the postseason.”
The element of the deal the Brewers struggled with the most was trading Axford within the division. While Milwaukee isn’t competing with St. Louis for anything this season, Axford could come back to haunt them if the Cardinals opt to tender him a contract for next year.
Axford is arbitration-eligible after the season and will receive no less than $4 million for next year. The Brewers were unlikely to tender him a contract for 2014, but St. Louis could chose to do so.
“That’s one of the reasons why (Melvin) asked me and why he had a hard time with it,” Roenicke said. “Anytime you trade in your division and to a team that’s above you, you always cringe some. But where we are this year, if you’re going to do it, this is the time to do it. I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the year with Ax; it’ll probably depend on how he pitches for them whether they try to re-sign him. But we’ll see him in a few days and I’m sure he’s looking forward to doing well against us.”
Milwaukee will head to St. Louis for a series beginning Sept. 10 and the Cardinals will make a final trip to Milwaukee for a series spanning Sept. 20-22.
“I think when we see him in the red uniform it’s going to sink in a bit, especially when he faces our hitters,” Henderson said. “When he gets in the game it’s going to be a weird reaction.”