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Axford takes over for Perez as Indians closer

February 16, 2014

GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) — John Axford won’t be helping the hitters anymore.

The former Brewers closer got a surprise when he was traded to St. Louis last August. The Cardinals told him that something in his delivery was tipping off the hitters about what pitch was on the way.

In a game where any little advantage can make a difference, it was a revelation.

“If they figured it out, you don’t know who else did and how they used the information,” the Cleveland Indians’ new closer said on Sunday.

Axford watched video, saw the telltale giveaway and changed it. He was a trustworthy reliever as the Cardinals won the NL pennant and lost to Boston in the World Series.

The tip-off there? He was ready to move back into a closer’s role for someone.

The Indians decided to make him the focal point of an overhauled bullpen.

“He was one of the most dominant relievers in the National League for a couple of years,” general manager Chris Antonetti said. “And then I think what we saw with St. Louis at the end of the year seemed to indicate that he was back closer to that guy that he’d been with Milwaukee.

“He’s got electric stuff. And when he’s got the ability to be really successful.”

He’s already well ahead of where he was a year ago.

The 30-year-old closer pitched for Canada in the World Baseball Classic and had a tired shoulder heading into the season. In one exhibition game, his fastball was all over the radar gun.

“I threw a fastball 89 miles per hour, but also threw one 96,” he said. “Just a weird variation. It’s not like I was trying to throw one harder or throw one slower. It just happened that way.”

It kept happening as the season started, and Axford got knocked around, costing him the closer’s job and some of his confidence.

“I just had that tough start in Milwaukee,” he said. “When you give up nine runs in your first four outings, five homers in the first half-month, it’s not really helpful to a reliever at all.”

Axford’s shoulder came around, and so did the results. He allowed only one run over 32 outings from mid-May to mid-July, going a career-best 20 1-3 innings without allowing a run during that time.

The Cardinals were impressed. They traded for him in August, and Axford allowed only two earned runs in 13 appearances heading into the playoffs. He gave up one run in six postseason appearances.

It was more like the way he pitched earlier in his career with the Brewers. Axford set a club record with 46 saves in 2011 and converted 49 consecutive save chances from 2011-12.

The Indians needed someone to replace closer Chris Perez, who lost the job late last season. Axford got to move into a closer role with a team that reached the playoffs last season.

“There were a few different teams out there that were in the hunt as well,” Axford said. “I didn’t want to just pitch for any team. It had to be a perfect fit for me.

“Cleveland was just that perfect fit.”

Starter Aaron Harang also found the Indians to be a good fit. He agreed to a minor league contract on Saturday and was invited to camp to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation.

The 35-year-old pitcher went to spring training with the Dodgers last year competing for a spot in the rotation, but got moved into the bullpen. He was traded to Colorado, which in turn traded him to Seattle, where he went 5-11 with a 5.76 ERA. He finished the season with the Mets, making four starts.

“I’d been in the National League my whole career,” Harang said, before his first workout on Sunday. “I felt there was a little bit of a transition coming over to the AL. I know we face teams in interleague, but it’s different when it’s on a day-to-day basis and you’re seeing a lot of faces you don’t see all the time.

“I know what I have to do now to make the adjustments after spending last year in Seattle.”


Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay

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