Axford an early bright spot for Indians

Cleveland Indians relief pitcher John Axford, right, is having a better April than he did last season as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers.  

Tony Dejak/AP

In what has not been a great start for the Indians, one of the more pleasant surprises has been from John Axford.

Signed over the offseason to be the closer, Axford has converted eight of nine save opportunities and leads the American League. If he gets a save either tonight or Wednesday against the Angels, it would tie the team mark for most saves the first month of the season. Jose Mesa (1996), Mike Jackson (’98) and Joe Borowski (2007) each had nine saves.

Coming into the season, Axford’s previous high for saves in March/April was five. It is quite a change from last April when the right-hander lost his job as the Brewers closer after giving up four home runs in his first three appearances and having a 10.32 ERA on May 1. It wasn’t until a stretch of 32 outings from May 15 to July 24 where Axford got back on track as he allowed just one run in 28 innings.

This year Axford’s only stumble was in an April 13 loss to the White Sox when Alexei Ramirez hit a walk-off, two-run homer. Axford’s ERA is 2.79, which is well below his career ERA of 5.40 for the first month.

"In years past I have felt pretty solid but the numbers haven’t always been there in April as ERA, Walks and WHIP will show that," Axford said. "I really wanted to focus getting off on a good start coming out of the gate."

Axford hasn’t pitched since last Wednesday but his last two outings have been strong. On April 21 against the Royals he retired the side in order on seven pitches and two days later threw only 14 pitches while allowing a hit. With runners on, opposing hitters are 2 of 18 against Axford.

Terry Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway would like to see less walks from Axford. He has seven on the season but has only one, which was an intentional walk, in the past four games.

"He’s starting to stick the fastball which is good. When he does that, it makes him so effective with the breaking ball," Francona said.

Added Callaway: "They have trouble hitting his stuff. He knows that he has to limit his walks and when he does that, he has the best success he can."

In a month in which the offense has struggled and the starting rotation has the fourth-highest ERA in the American League, Axford and the bullpen have been the most consistent performers on the team. The bullpen is tied for the second-lowest ERA in the AL

Indians relievers have stranded a Major League-best 36 of 39 inherited runners (92.3 percent), including 15 straight dating back to April 18 against Toronto. To show how much the rotation has struggled, according to Baseball Reference this will be the first time in team history that three Indians’ starters who have pitched 22 innings or more in March or April have not had a win. There have been three previous cases — 1969, ’71 and 2005 — where two starters under those parameters have gone winless.

"We’ve been playing up and down baseball. We’ve been coming back in a lot of games and also giving away games as well," Axford said. "Hopefully the turmoil of this month can turn over and we can play solid baseball as well."

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