Axford's weight is back, so wait to pitch is over

Axford's weight is back, so wait to pitch is over

Axford's weight is back, so wait to pitch is over
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- John Axford came into the Brewers' Spring Training camp with a weight off his back. It was the weight he had lost off the rest of his body that postponed his participation.

Milwaukee's closer finally came out of the shadows on Friday to pitch a scoreless inning in a 7-2 Cactus League loss to the San Francisco Giants.

"My body felt great. I need to get a little tighter on my slider, so that's something I've got to work on," said Axford, who has finally merged with the other relievers' normal preparation routine.

From here on, for a spell he will rest two days between game appearances, then will begin pitching every other day as the regular season nears.

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But he had to wait until the Brewers' sixth exhibition for his Cactus League debut due to some disagreeable sushi in a Valentine's dinner with his wife, and the quick loss of 10 1/2 pounds from the resulting case of food poisoning.

"Losing that much weight in two days left me pretty weak. They wanted me to wait until I regained my strength," said Axford, a relative 6-foot-5 bean-pole even at his normal weight of 195 pounds.

"I've put back 11 [pounds] -- so I'm ahead there," he said.

For the first time in his surprisingly brief professional career -- he will be 28 on April 1, at the outset of his fifth pro season -- Axford has a Major League job with his name on it.

A year ago, he was still a face in the crowd. He had finally made his big league debut as a 2009 September callup, but with the legend, Trevor Hoffman, still enthroned as the Brewers' closer, all Axford could hope to do was leave a good impression.

He left one good enough for the Brewers to think of him when Hoffman began to falter. Axford was recalled from Triple-A Nashville in mid-May, made his first appearance on May 15 and got his first save opportunity on May 23.

He nailed it, as well as 23 of the next 26. With those 24 saves, an 8-2 record and 2.48 ERA, and 76 strikeouts in 58 innings to his credit, the job now waits for him.

"It puts me more at ease. I don't have to put pressure on myself," Axford said. "I know I've got a spot, so that's a lot of weight off my back.

"But you've still got to go out and prove that you can do it."

His first outing was proof enough for manager Ron Roenicke, who was in the Angels' dugout last season during Axford's splash.

"I was happy with what I saw," Roenicke said after the game. "The ball was coming out of his hand nice. First time out, you tend to just let it go and everything is up. Adrenaline takes over, and you've got to calm down.

"So we expected that. It was nice to see him back out there and I thought it went well."

Axford thus took the first step toward giving evidence that his 2010 success will not be isolated. Like most overnight successes, his took many years and many cleared obstacles to achieve.

A native of Canada, he got into the game with two strikes already on him: Not many who sign their first pro pact at the age of 23 have bright prospects. Recovery from Tommy John surgery limited him to three innings in his last two years at Assumption College (Brantford, Ontario), accounting for the delay.

Axford then fouled off a two-strike rap when the Yankees, the team that gave him that first deal, released him a year later, in December 2007.

"They were up-front about it," Axford recalled. "They said they had more money invested in other pitchers and didn't think I'd have a real chance there. So by releasing me in December, they felt I'd have a better chance to find another team."

As Axford recalled, the Yankees official handing him the pink slip also said: "If you're good and ever figure it out, another team will give you a shot."

Five months later, the Brewers signed him to that shot. Soon thereafter, Axford figured it out.

Once he figures out how to tell good sushi from bad, nothing will be in his way.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.