After opening year as Crew closer, Axford in Fall Classic
Long-time Brewer earns World Series bid with rival Cardinals after mid-season trade
ST. LOUIS -- This was a sight for only the most iron-stomached of Brewers fans. John Axford, a face of Milwaukee's famously fun 2011 team that was bounced by the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, spraying champagne and dancing around the Cardinals' clubhouse.
Axford wears red these days, having been traded to St. Louis in August. A season that began with a blown save for the Brewers will end in the World Series with the Cardinals. His new club punched its ticket by beating the Dodgers in Game 6 of the NLCS on Friday night, and the party was on.
"It's absolutely incredible, it really is," said Axford, trying to speak amid the celebration while injured Cardinals closer Jason Motte delivered a beer shower.
Brewers fans shudder again.
"It's hard to describe, in all honesty," Axford said. "It was tough to lose that game [to the Cardinals in 2011], to know that you had a good team, but you couldn't quite make it. Now I'm on the other side, and we got there. There's still one more step to go, but it's hard to describe how good this feels."
He has felt everything in 2013, beginning with the agony of a Dexter Fowler home run that barely cleared the fence on Opening Day at Miller Park -- the first of three straight outings to begin Axford's season in which he surrendered a homer.
That shaky stretch cost him Brewers closer duties, though there were better days to come. Over a 36-game stretch from May 3-July 24, Axford allowed only three runs and no home runs, pitching to a 0.86 ERA in a middle-relief role. It sufficiently boosted his value to the point general manager Doug Melvin could explore trade opportunities for Axford, who earned million this season, is arbitration-eligible again this winter, and would have been non-tendered next month had he remained in Milwaukee.
It pained Melvin to deal Axford within the division, but he nevertheless sent Axford to St. Louis for Michael Blazek, another right-hander with a big arm and occasional command issues, but a much lower salary. Axford, a onetime bartender and cell phone salesman who was given a comeback opportunity after signing with the Brewers in 2008, was sad to go.
The silver lining was easy to see: He was headed to a contender.
"If I wasn't here, I'd be home right now," Axford said as the NLCS began.
The Brewers finished 74-88, while the Cardinals won the NL Central, with Axford logging a 1.74 ERA in his 13 appearances for St. Louis during the regular season. He has added four appearances in the postseason, the first three scoreless before Axford surrendered Adrian Gonzalez's second home run in Game 5 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium.
Now he's going to the World Series, an old man in a bullpen anchored by hard-throwing rookies Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez.
"From the other side, you always wondered how and why every guy coming in from the [Cardinals'] 'pen was throwing 98 [mph] and hitting their spots and doing it in a professional manner, under control and always collected out there on the mound," Axford said. "Being on the other side, it was frustrating.
"Now that I'm here, getting to know these guys and knowing their personalities, there seems to be something that is already instilled in them. They have this sense that they're playing for the Cardinals, and that's something bigger than themselves. You don't come into this clubhouse as an individual, you come in here as a team. The guys who have been here before you make sure you're aware of that. I think that's something that's really special to this organization."
He never expected to be part of it, but the reality set in as Axford spilled suds into the wee hours of Saturday. Maybe it was the champagne, but his eyes begin to redden.
"Where the season started, where it looked like things were headed, where I expected to go at the end of September, this is certainly not where I expected to be right now," Axford said. "I'm very, very grateful and humbled to be here. I'm going to take advantage of it as best I can.
"I don't think I have words to accurately describe how I feel, in all honesty. This is awesome, the way that this team has taken me in, making me feel like one of their own after being on the other side for so long. I can hug these guys, have these moments with these guys and love this moment with these guys, and not feel like I started out. They made me feel like I belonged right away."