The Oakland Athletics made John Axford’s first three outs as the closer for the Cleveland Indians a long process, throwing 26 pitches (14 balls, 12 strikes). Two of the five batter’s at-bats ended in swinging strikeouts for the now 31-year-old the night before his birthday. Although conclusions can’t be reached from one frame of work, it’s noteworthy to review what Axford is and what he isn’t.
After walking catcher John Jaso and first baseman Daric Barton, Justin Masterson’s seven inning masterpiece was in serious jeopardy. As any good pitcher will do, Axford didn’t get worked up over allowing two walks, sticking to his game plan relying on his fastball and curveball while maintaining his pace. Ranging from 92-94 mph, Axford came at the Athletics’ 5-9 hitters with his four seam fastball grazing the top and bottom corners early and often. He did a good job against Josh Reddick, throwing six of seven pitches for 93 mph fastballs on the lower half of the zone.
On his fifth curveball of the night, Axford ended the game by fooling Nick Punto with a 78 mph “Uncle Charlie” on a 1-2 count. This pitch can be deadly for him going forward when he is up in counts and changing speeds dialing it down 15 mph from his fastball. It will be vital going forward for the “Ax Man” to continue locating that curveball down and out of harm’s way.
Last night’s performance of allowing the winning run to come to the plate is not a cause for concern. Closers, much like any other pitcher, allow walks and hits, naturally. The best closer of all time, Mariano Rivera gave up 998 hits and 286 walks of his own. What separates the good from the bad are the those who can maintain their routine in every situation trusting their arsenal of pitches to get outs. It is now up to Axford to bring the number of balls down in the his next encore.
There will be times when Axford will blow a save or a tied game, but he will also shut the door down at a much higher rate. In times of struggle the Notre Dame graduate will come back strong with over 273 innings of MLB experience entering this year to fall back on. He’s a bright pitcher with too many resources at his disposal to not be successful in 2014.