MILWAUKEE -- John Axford was back in Brewers camp Thursday after suffering a bout of food poisoning. It was about the only thing that's gone wrong for the reliever in the past calendar year. The former independent league pitcher and part-time bartender started last season at Triple-A Nashville but eventually earned a shot to take over from legend Trevor Hoffman as Milwaukee's closer. Axford's handlebar mustache earned him instant notoriety, and he cemented his fan-favorite status by converting 24 of 27 save chances. John and wife Nicole moved during the offseason into a new home near Hamilton, Ontario, where Axford stayed busy shoveling snow and communicating with more than 6,400 Twitter followers who hang on his every 140-character thought. Now Nicole is pregnant with the couple's first child, due in June, and Axford is staring at his first full season in the Major Leagues.
So, yes, Axford has reason to wear a smile under that well-known mustache. "That mustache is probably the best thing he ever did," cracked bullpen mate LaTroy Hawkins. "But it's really about that right arm. He's gifted."
A lot is riding on that right arm in 2011, considering the Brewers spent the offseason making dramatic improvements to the starting rotation without breaking up the core of the lineup.
Axford will lead a bullpen that some national experts have labeled the Brewers' soft spot, though club officials don't see it that way. Hawkins is working his way back from shoulder surgery and expects to be ready for Opening Day, and the team added another former closer in veteran free agent Takashi Saito, whose 2.83 ERA with the Braves in 2010 was actually the worst of his five Major League seasons.
Left-hander Zach Braddock and right-hander Kameron Loe, both of whom helped stabilize the relief corps last season in the wake of Hoffman's struggles and Hawkins' injury, are back. So is lefty Manny Parra, who hasn't established himself as a starter in the Majors but had some success last year in relief. He'll probably be the long man.
Assuming all of those pitchers make it through camp healthy, it would leave only one bullpen spot up for grabs. The Brewers have plenty of candidates with varying degrees of big league experience, from newcomers Sean Green and Justin James to up-and-comers Mike McClendon and Brandon Kintzler.
"We have to go out and prove to everyone that this bullpen is a strength," Hawkins said. "After all of those guys came up last year and took over, we were pretty solid.
"Maybe people who say the bullpen is a soft spot are stuck on the first part of last year. I don't see it that way."
One key to the group's success is Axford, who will turn 28 the day after the Brewers open their regular season in Cincinnati. He learned on the job in 2010 under Hoffman, who converted only five of his first 10 save chances and lost his duties as closer.
Axford won eight of 10 decisions, saved 24, struck out nearly three times as many batters as he walked and finished with a 2.48 ERA. New Brewers manager Ron Roenicke is banking on the idea that Axford's 2010 experience will slingshot him into '11.
"I think it's easier to do it the way he did," Roenicke said. "He's already got the confidence, the great makeup and feeling. When you go into the offseason and you tell a guy who's been at Triple-A, 'He's going to be our closer next year,' that's tough. ... We all know being a closer is a mental thing."
For the physical part of things, Axford turned to a personal trainer -- his wife's maid of honor's boyfriend. Once or twice a week, they braved the cold for weight and agility work in the guy's garage.
He was already in top shape after spending the season as part of "Camp Hoffman," daily workouts led by Major League Baseball's all-time saves leader. Fans who arrived very early for tailgating were sometimes treated to a line of Brewers relievers running the circumference of Miller Park or doing agility drills in the parking lots.
Will Axford continue the tradition?
"I think so," he said. "I think doing those with Trevor and the whole bullpen at the end of the year pushed me a little bit more for the offseason workouts I ended up doing. I ended up doing more cross-fit style things, really intense workouts I couldn't even finish. The first one I did, I had to stop. I told the guy, 'I'm going to pass out.'"
Those workouts took place in the trainer's garage, even in the dead of winter. Body heat was the only source of warmth.
"When you start, you can see your breath, and I'm wearing tights, sweatpants, compression sleeves, a T-shirt and a winter hat," Axford said. "At the start, your hands are cold because the bar is basically frozen. By the end, I'm in my shorts and T-shirt, just done. I was going to say, 'Take a picture,' but I was too tired."
He might have posted that picture on Twitter, where @JohnAxford was busy. He hosted a trivia contest in which fans could win some of his extra team-issued gear from 2010, and earlier this month joined with Twitchange, where celebrities auction their Twitter profiles for charity.
"I love it," Axford said of his new hobby. "But I've already taken some razzing from some of the guys."
For the first few weeks, Axford had to figure out how Twitter worked. Now he's a trending topic machine, like the day in January when the Green Bay Packers won a trip to the Super Bowl and Axford fired up fans with "#SUPERBOWLIncredibleSuperPackerDomination."
Now it's the Brewers' turn to continue Wisconsin's athletic hot streak. Roenicke said Axford would be asked to take it easy for the rest of this week and gain back weight and strength lost to his illness, but at some point he'll resume his push toward the season.
"It could be tough, but he has to keep in mind that he's proven that he can do the job and just continue to go out and do it," Hawkins said. "Once you know you can do the job at this level, you can't let one or two or three games set you back."
Position analysis• Manager
• Second base