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Indians confident John Axford can return to form as dominant closer

By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer

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The Indians and John Axford believe the issues that prevented the 30-year-old right-hander from being successful last year already have been resolved.

Consequently, General Manager Chris Antonetti has bet $6.2 million that Axford can take the place of Chris Perez as the Tribe’s closer.

Why is Antonetti so confident?

“John has maintained his stuff and that includes his elite fastball,” he said Thursday, when the club announced the one-year signing. “He also made adjustments when he went to St. Louis that allowed him to go back to being the pitcher he was in Milwaukee. So we think this is the right guy to take a chance on.”

Axford was the closer for the Milwaukee Brewers from 2010-2012, amassing 105 saves in 119 chances. He began to slip in 2012, when he blew nine saves, and he started the 2013 season by failing to convert his first six saves, which cost him his closer job.

In lesser roles, Axford was used successfully until the Brewers traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals in August. For the season, he was 6-7 with a 4.02 ERA in 75 appearances, encompassing 65 innings.

After posting an April ERA of 8.44, Axford went through a stretch from May 15-July 24 allowing one run in 28 innings (32 outings).

Both Antonetti and Axford suspect his slow start in 2013 was a result of his rush to be ready for the World Baseball Classic last spring.

“It could have been just a dead-arm issue,” Axford said Thursday. “Maybe I got ready too early. But my velocity was definitely down, to 91-92.”

Antonetti focused on the first two weeks of the schedule.

“I think he ramped up for the WBC and got into some bad habits,” he said. “He gave up runs in his first four outings. After the first 10 days of the season, he stabilized and pitched pretty well.”

Axford, 30, has certainly had more success than failure. In 2011, he tied Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves for the National League lead in saves with 46 (in 48 chances) and compiled a 1.95 ERA. Even when he failed in nine save attempts in 2012, he finished sixth in the NL with 35 saves.

Axford will start the season as the Indians’ closer, but manager Terry Francona and Antonetti think the team has other options if Axford stumbles.

“John just needs to work ahead — like every pitcher — and limit the free passes,” Antonetti said. “We still feel he’s capable of doing that. Our expectation is that John will be our closer.”

On the other hand, Antonetti and Francona believe that Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw could evolve into closers. Allen and Shaw will share the setup role.

Axford, who originally signed with the New York Yankees as an undrafted free agent after an injury-plagued college career at Notre Dame University and Canisius College, found himself in a unique position: that of wanted man.

“There were certainly other teams in the mix,” said Axford, who is from Simcoe, Ontario. “That was the most difficult part, because I never had a choice before. It was fun, but it was difficult.”

So why come to Cleveland?

“Getting to close was a big part,” Axford said. “But there were quite a few factors. There was the team itself, and how well it did last year. It was also their clubhouse. I also talked to Terry Francona before I signed.”

To make room on the 40-man roster for Axford, RubberDucks reliever Trey Haley was designated for assignment.

Sheldon Ocker can be reached at socker@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.


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