SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Everything felt off on the mound for John Axford on the fateful night of Aug. 2, 2021. Twelve hours earlier he’d arrived in Milwaukee, called up after the Brewers purchased his rights from the Toronto Blue Jays for $1, capping a whirlwind ascent back to the big-leagues. The last time he’d been in the majors was Sept. 21, 2018, when he tried to pitch through a fractured fibula for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He faced four batters, didn’t record an out and his season was over. A bone spur in his elbow shut him down in 2019 and the pandemic sidelined him again in 2020 before he ramped up to pitch for Canada at an Olympic qualifier the next spring. He threw so well there that the Blue Jays signed him to a minor-league deal, he shoved in nine outings with the Bisons, pumping 97 at Worcester on Aug. 31 and suddenly he was facing the Pittsburgh Pirates at American Family Field, the ball just not coming out right.
Maybe the velo was down and his two-seamer lousy because he was too nervous, he thought. Or too calm. Or too high. He couldn’t decide. And then on his 21st pitch, a 93.8 m.p.h. sinker to Ben Gamel for ball three, he felt a bit of a tug in his elbow. “Oh, well, (expletive),” he thought as he got back on the mound, before steeling himself and saying, “Let’s see.” He reached back for another sinker. The ligament inserted into his elbow back in 2003, when he underwent his first Tommy John surgery, snapped as he tried to finish the pitch, which sailed wide arm side for ball four. “It was just an immediate wash of emotion,” he remembers, “so sad and disappointed.” In the dugout after he’d hid his tears coming off the mound, he and Brewers manager Craig Counsell looked at each other. “I’m like, ‘Dude, no (expletive) way this happened,’” he recalls. “‘I really just blew my elbow right here?’”
It’s in the days that followed that Axford unknowingly began taking the steps that have led him back to the Canadian bullpen for the World Baseball Classic. At 39, the tournament is more a chance for the right-hander to go out on his own terms than one last go at The Show, although if an offer came, who knows. After the injury was diagnosed — the ligament in his elbow had become so calcified over time that it broke as much as it tore — he had to decide whether to go through another Tommy John surgery and the months of rehab that come along with it. In the end, all the work might be for nothing more than three or four innings with the national team, yet he dove in anyway. On Wednesday he recorded two outs in an exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs, a test run for his second and final Classic.
“Even if it’s only for three games in the WBC, it’ll be something that I would be proud of because I worked at it,” says Axford. “My kids have been able to see this progress and maybe it’s something that they’ll be able to process, that I fought the battle to get back.”
The decision to put himself through the struggle didn’t come easy.
Axford struggled with the thought that his final baseball memory, after 544 games in the majors and 124 more in the minors over 15 years, would be that last pitch in Milwaukee. Still on the fence a day or two after the injury, a conversation with beloved Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker really resonated. “‘People don’t get it,’” Axford remembers the former catcher telling him. “‘The competition that’s in you, the competition that’s in us baseball guys that want to be here, want to be out there, it’s hard to just take that away and just say, OK, that’s it. I’ve seen you work your ass off and you’ve gotten back here. It’s hard to just hang it up.’
“Talking to him, still seeing that fire of baseball in Bobby Uecker at that moment and the emotion from him even talking about the emotions that he had, when he was seeing me pitch out there that day, I kind of felt the same thing,” Axford adds. “I was like, yeah, if I don’t do it, I’ll regret it.”
The surgery took place Sept. 1. His sons watched him, arm in a sling, hobble up and down the stairs at home as his hamstring, from where the new ligament was pulled, healed. By June, he resumed throwing, his first tosses to son JB, who is 11. “I wanted that to happen,” says Axford, who kept playing catch with him and 10-year-old Jameson until he was throwing too hard for them, transitioning at that point to other coaches on their team, which he was also coaching. By the fall, he progressed to throwing into a net outside his house. When it got too cold, he moved indoors at Fieldhouse Athletics in Burlington, Ont., setting up a Rapsodo periodically to check his velocity.
He’d gotten up to the mid-80s by the time the Canadians gathered in Phoenix for the Classic, knowing that his velocity always spikes up once he’s actually in a game. True to form, he was 86-87 warming up on the mound at Sloan Park after coming in to face the Cubs with a runner on and jumped up to 92-93, allowing a double before recording two fly ball outs.
Afterwards, Axford walked by a couple of reporters, lifted his elbow and said, “still attached,” with an impish grin.
Later, on a more serious note, he says, “It’s a lot of emotions. I don’t know if I’ve processed it entirely in all honesty.”
“I was more nervous all day leading up to the moment than I was in the moment,” Axford continues. “We were trying to figure things out in the bullpen, like if we get in trouble, maybe I’ll get going. And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can get going.’ I was panicked, all in my head, way more nervous than I had been in the past. But once I got that baseball in my hand and threw it, I was good. In the end, I threw six warmup pitches and I was good to go.”
Axford believes his velocity will still tick up a bit more. He wasn’t happy with his two-seamer. And while he’s still learning what normal is for his new elbow, there wasn’t any unusual soreness in the days after the outing.
How he gets used is unclear, but he will get used, as Canada will employ an all-hands-on-deck approach with only one established starter in Cal Quantrill, 17 pitchers on the roster and four games in four days.
Seattle Mariners fireballer Matt Brash is the closer and who lines up in front of him will be decided by matchups, availability and situations. There will be plans and adjustments on the fly.
“(Axford’s) first outing might be a fifth or sixth inning, that type of thing, just to get one inning out of him and see how it goes,” says manager Ernie Whitt. “That’s not to say that come Colombia and Mexico time that he’s not back there (in high leverage). It all depends after he throws, how is he going to feel. The adrenaline is going to start flowing a little bit for him when he’s out on the mound and we’ll just see how he can bounce back after that.”
Regardless of how things go, that he’s here, in the mix at all, is a victory in and of itself. His final moments on a big-league field, in all likelihood, won’t be the heartbreaking walk off the field in Milwaukee, fighting back tears after seeing fans cheering him, but exiting Chase Field, his family in the stands, having persevered for a much different closing scene.
“That’s kind of what it’s all about for me,” says Axford. “The worth is what I put into it, not so much the end result. It’s being able to enjoy being here, enjoy having a uniform on and enjoy having my kids with me.”