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John Axford Provides Veteran Presence For Team Canada In Americas Qualifier

Axford (Baseball Canada)
John Axford (Baseball Canada)

John Axford wouldn’t fall under the definition of a journeyman, but he’s definitely been on  a journey, man.

Right now, that journey has brought him to West Palm Beach, Fla., where the 38-year-old righthander is gearing up with the rest of Team Canada to compete for an Olympic bid. Axford brings the most big league experience to the squad, with 10 years in the majors and time with the Brewers, Athletics, Rockies, Pirates, Cardinals, Dodgers, Indians and Blue Jays under his belt.

Axford was originally drafted out of high school in 2001, two decades ago for those who are counting. He continued his baseball journey at Notre Dame, where he was once again selected in the draft in 2005. From there, he went to Canisius College to play and complete his master’s degree, before eventually signing with the Yankees. In 2008, after his first professional season, the Yankees released him.

His minor league signing with the Brewers that followed has become a story that mixes myth with fact, depending on the source, and is highlighted by a snowstorm or not a snowstorm, an electric but erratic arm, and the scout who showed up, Jay Lapp. Neither Axford nor Lapp could have predicted that the righty would become the National League saves leader three years later in 2011, but there they were.

Axford is expected to bring that closing prowess to the Canadian squad as it squares off against Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela in round-robin play to start the Olympic qualifier before the team takes on whatever may be next. He’ll lead the back end of a bullpen that has other big league experience by way of Andrew Albers, Chris Leroux, Scott Mathieson, and Dustin Molleken.

The tournament marks the end of a tumultuous time for players like Axford. His last big league appearance was 981 days ago, when he suited up for the Dodgers to take on the Padres at Dodger Stadium. Between that night and his next professional regular-season appearance, a rehab outing with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Blue Jays, there was a span of 309 days. Almost two years have passed since then, with ups and downs related to baseball and beyond.

In 2018, the Blue Jays traded Axford to the Dodgers at the deadline, and three games later, a comebacker broke his leg. His arm had also been giving him some trouble at the end of that year, and just as he was about to make the Blue Jays Opening Day roster in 2019, the issue reared its ugly head once again. He attempted to rehab and return, but in August his season would come to an end after surgery to remove a bone spur.

He built back up for a 2020 season that never came to fruition for him, and came to a crashing halt for all players. He’d had plans to try to help Canada qualify for the Olympics last March, and after another year of much of the same, that ambition became the first realistic goal he’d been able to set his sights on in some time.

“I was disappointed in everything back to 2018, being traded, then in my third game I broke my leg, got hurt and barely got to pitch for the Dodgers,” he said. “My elbow started bothering me at the end of that season, and it recurred in spring training 2019. But I was pitching well in spring training 2019, was only a few days away from being on the roster, until I physically couldn’t move my arm anymore. I’ve had Tommy John surgery and the pain I was feeling was worse than blowing my elbow out.

“So there was a grouping of all that disappointment that culminated after everything was canceled. I had worked so hard to try and make a team in 2019 and then I got hurt. And I worked so hard to try and come back, and I did, I was on the verge of it, but in that one game I threw in the minor leagues I knew something wasn’t right again, and I had surgery. Then I rehabbed it and came back, was throwing well, had the radar gun up and I was throwing 92, 93 in the bullpen, feeling strong, and everything was canceled. All of that together put me not in a great space.”

Though he didn’t know what might be on the horizon, Axford knew he was going to have to find a way to continue gearing up through the coronavirus pandemic, a privilege he is fortunate to have had. Between April and September of last year, the Canadian hurler accumulated enough equipment to comfortably furnish a fully-functional gym, and he began to find the intrinsic motivation he had searched for after things shut down.

“For me it goes back to getting motivation from that disappointment,” Axford said. “The initial disappointment of working hard and training hard to be healthy and get back healthy, and feel good enough to be competitive, and to pitch within some strong competition. I wanted that back again. It’s been a while, and that’s what’s driving me right now.”

Axford did what he could with what he had, and he was able to use an indoor facility in Burlington, Ontario through the coldest months until he was able to head outside. From last March to the time he arrived in Florida this week, he hadn’t thrown to a person other than one of his two young sons, often using a wall or a net as his catch partner.

“I would bring my own bucket of Rawlings baseballs, set up the mounds, set up my Rapsodo, make sure everything’s lined up, and throw into a net,” Axford said. “That’s been my entire preparation for this thing.”

At home, Axford used his Pocket Radar and Rapsodo to evaluate his work and play around with what might be possible.

“With Rapsodo, I was trying different grips and holds on the ball, to see how much spin I can take off a ball; how much spin I can put on it,” he said. “Taking spin off I’ve found even more interesting, especially if I’m throwing some two-seamers and I’m able to really almost remove a ton of spin rate, so it’s just now a heavy sinking two-seamer. Some of those things have been kind of intriguing to me.”

Getting up to 93 mph on home soil, the veteran righthander is excited to see what happens when the games are on the line and he’s fighting for his country’s return to the Olympics.

“I can try and throw as hard as I want at any point in time, throwing in bullpens or whatever, and my body and my mental makeup would not allow me to throw a ball as hard as I do in a game against a hitter,” said Axford, who proved his point by getting up to 96 in his first exhibition game for Canada on Wednesday. “It’s not physically possible, and I don’t know why that is, other than it’s just the way it is for me. That mentality of the anxiety or the adrenaline of the competition is what helps push me. That’s what it is for me. I’m getting excited about that.”

Axford believes that Canada’s biggest challenges might be on the mental side of the game, with many players who have not had an abundance of resources available to them throughout the pandemic while working with the country’s various protocols to help combat the spread of the coronavirus. But international competition is always a challenge in itself, so not much has changed in the way of the on-field battles.

“The mental side is another preparation piece that needs to happen and it’s difficult to pull that together when you’re not in competition or when you’re not in the same space that you would have been last year preparing for this,” Axford said. “Other than that, the tournament itself is going to be difficult. There are a lot of good teams. ... You can’t look too far ahead to competition in the days ahead, you just have to really—as cliche as it is—go one day and one game at a time.”

Team Canada brings an abundance of international experience to the table, as well as a team solidarity that its members would say is unmatched.

“It’s always been special,” Axford said. “There’s already camaraderie, there’s already team unity, and that’s difficult to replicate with any other team so immediately. So that should definitely be a big help and a big positive going into this.”

John Axford Canada Bracehemmelgarngetty

2021 Canada Olympic Qualifying Roster

Canada's roster for the Americas Qualifier, led by former big league pitchers John Axford, Scott Mathieson and Chris Leroux.

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