Ax Man liv­ing the dream

On­tario na­tive Ax­ford ready for a bounce­back sea­son as he tries to earn spot with Blue Jays

Standard-Freeholder (Cornwall) - - SPORTS - STEVE BUF­FERY

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Last Sun­day, re­lief pitcher John Ax­ford tweeted a pic­ture of him­self from when he was a kid. It was Christ­mas morn­ing and he was wear­ing Blue Jays pa­ja­mas.

And he had a smile on his face as a bright as a Christ­mas tree.

That same smile was shin­ing at Dunedin Sta­dium on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon.

A na­tive of Sim­coe, Ont., Ax­ford signed a mi­nor-league deal with the Jays last week with an in­vi­ta­tion to Ma­jor League spring train­ing camp. After nine sea­sons in the ma­jors, the hard-throw­ing Cana­dian is ful­fill­ing a life-long dream, to play for the Blue Jays. The goal now, of course, is that he sticks with the club and be­comes a valu­able piece of the puz­zle in the bullpen.

“It’s tough to put all that in words in all hon­esty,” said Ax­ford when asked about com­ing to the Jays. “It was great com­ing in and see­ing the Blue Jays (logo) ev­ery­where, see­ing that in the locker room, in the weight room. It’s what I grew up with. It was what I was a fan of my en­tire life grow­ing up as a kid. Once you play pro, those things change. You start work­ing and be­liev­ing in the team and the or­ga­ni­za­tion that you’re with, so for this to kind of come full cir­cle for me and be able to play for this or­ga­ni­za­tion is pretty great.”

Toronto rep­re­sents Ax­ford’s sev­enth ma­jor-league team and though he strug­gled last year in Oak­land, the for­mer Team Canada pitcher says he is 100 per cent healthy with his fast­ball still in the mid to high 90s. Once a dom­i­nate power pic­ture, who could touch 100 m.p.h. on oc­ca­sion, he can still throw hard while mix­ing in an ef­fec­tive curve­ball and slider. Ax­ford led the Na­tional League in saves in 2011 with 46 saves and said there is no rea­son why he can’t re­bound from last year’s per­for­mance which saw him post a 6.43 ERA in 22 games. He said he started the year with a strained shoul­der suf­fered while warm­ing up and was placed on the DL for the first time in his ca­reer.

“Hav­ing a set­back (like that) right at the very be­gin­ning of the year, I think it kind of dis­tracted me a lit­tle bit men­tally,” he said. “I tried to work my way back through and, hon­estly, I felt re­ally good for the first lit­tle bit. Even look­ing back on video I wasn’t giv­ing up the big hits, there were a lot of balls where I feel like I was beat­ing the hit­ters, but was just get­ting a flare through the in­field, a flare over the in­field, and runs were scor­ing on that too. And I tried to change things in­stead of stick­ing with what I knew.”

Ax­ford said he and the Jays’ staff are on the same page here at train­ing camp in terms of his prepa­ra­tion and he’s ready for a bounce­back sea­son.

Ax­ford was a two-sport ath­lete grow­ing up in Port Dover, Ont., and at one time felt he had a shot of be­ing a pro hockey player. In the 10th grade, how­ever, after he broke his wrist play­ing hockey, he saw base­ball as his ticket to the pros. Ax­ford grew up a Maple Leafs and L.A. Kings fan, but said the Jays win­ning the World Se­ries in 1992 and 1993 re­ally height­ened his love of base­ball.

“That was prime time for me lov­ing sports at that point. I was 9-10 years old when they won in ’92 and ’93,” said the 6-foot-5 right-han­der. “Grow­ing up Cana­dian, you want to be a hockey player. That’s what I wanted to be, I wanted to play in the NHL. I wanted to be the next Rob Blake. Still prob­a­bly my favourite ath­lete. But, I think that (Toronto win­ning the World Se­ries) was a big turn­ing point. That re­ally changed the love of the game for me.”

As for grow­ing up a Kings fan, Ax­ford said it was an easy choice.

“Peo­ple al­ways ask if (be­ing a Kings fan) be­cause of (Wayne) Gret­zky. But, Rob Blake was my favourite player. Born in the same town as him, he was the first pro­fes­sional au­to­graph I ever got, he went to school with my un­cle so I got to meet him when I was younger, too. I liked Rob Blake, and that was my team, the Kings. So I had Kings stuff and Leafs stuff in my room,” Ax­ford said.

“Right-handed de­fence­man, No. 4,” Ax­ford added when asked what po­si­tion he played. “Which doesn’t re­ally work as a pitcher, you can’t re­ally be No. 4. But a few years ago I was No. 44 when I was with Cleve­land, so that’s the clos­est I can get, I guess.”

Ax­ford’s sign­ing brings up the Jays’ Cana­dian rep­re­sen­ta­tion on the ros­ter to five, along with Dal­ton Pom­pey, Rus­sell Martin, Jor­dan Romano and An­drew Cash.

“I like that guy,” said Martin of Ax­ford. “Def­i­nitely happy to have him. An­other good Cana­dian boy. Put an­other one on the list. It’s great.” sbuf­fery@post­media.com

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

John Ax­ford pitches for the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers in June 2010. The nine-year vet­eran from Sim­coe, Ont., is at Blue Jays spring train­ing hop­ing to earn a spot with the big club after sign­ing a mi­nor-league deal last week.

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