By Jack Etkin
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- John Axford and some of his fellow Cleveland Indians pitchers were at a Phoenix Coyotes hockey game when the information began to reach him via Twitter.
Hey, Ax is 3-for-3.
The Academy Awards were underway. Axford was off to a fast start with his annual Oscar predictions, not surprising given his success in past years.
Now you're 5-for-5.
More news, all of it good, as Axford kept nailing the lesser-known categories at the outset of the program. He had posted his predictions on his Twitter and Facebook pages a few hours before the show, making picks in 18 of the 24 Academy Awards categories.
As the streak reached eight in a row and then nine, Axford started keeping his phone open and began following the proceedings on IMBd, a website devoted to movie and TV news.
"I kept trying to refresh and update," said Axford, the Indians new closer, "so whenever someone would win, it show it right away within seconds."
Axford's love of film came from his father, Brian, a devotee of older Westerns. While traveling to youth baseball or hockey tournaments, Axford's father would use stops at service stations to scour the racks for movies they could watch. He picked up All Quiet on the Western Front, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Man with No Name trilogy as well as non-Western fare such as The Deer Hunter.
"He'd try and find these old VHS tapes," Axford said. "I remember he picked up The Shining, and he was really excited about finding it, because he couldn't find it anywhere."
Axford, a native of Port Dover, Ontario, received a Bachelor of Arts in film and television from Notre Dame. He went 11-for-13 in his Oscars predictions in 2011, 11-for-15 in 2012 and 14-for-15 last year. This year, Axford made 18 picks and ran the Oscars table.
"I was certainly a little nervous toward the end," Axford said, "but once I was 16-for-16, I kind of figured I had it locked. I figured Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) would win Best Actor and 12 Years a Slave would win Best Picture. Those were the last two."
It was more or less automatic at that point, sort of like overpowering two bottom-of-the-order hitters to nail down yet another save.
"Hopefully, I can go 18-for-18 in my first 18 save opportunities," Axford said. "That'd be fantastic."
History says he might. Axford converted his final 43 save opportunities in 2011 with the Milwaukee Brewers, finishing the season with 46 saves and sharing the National League lead with Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel. The following season, Axford ran his streak to 49 saves in a row, the fourth longest in major league history before it ended May 11.
Axford took over the closer's role for the Brewers during the 2010 season from Trevor Hoffman, who was faltering in the final year of his illustrious career. In his excellent 2011, Axford finished with a 1.95 ERA, but he slipped in 2012, blowing nine of 44 save opportunities, his ERA soaring to 4.67. His strikeouts per nine innings rose to 12.1 per nine innings from 10.5 a year earlier, but Axford averaged an unsightly 5.1 walks, up from 3.1.
"I wasn't really getting my breaking ball across," Axford, now 30, said of 2012. "Last year, I wasn't really getting my slider in there, but I was getting away with two pitches, a fastball and a curveball. I was making sure I pounded the zone. I didn't have as many strikeouts [9.0 per nine innings], but my walks were down [to 3.6 per nine innings]."
Axford began the 2013 season as the Brewers closer but lost the role to Jim Henderson after suffering a blown save and two losses in his first four games. But in Axford's final 71 games of the regular season, including 13 with the St. Louis Cardinals, he had a 2.63 ERA in 61 2/3 innings with 61 strikeouts, and his ERA in six postseason games was 1.59. During 2013, Axford averaged 95.3 miles per hour with his fastball, according to FanGraphs.
"He's a couple years removed from 46 saves," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "If you look at his season last year, after the first week, it's a pretty good season...He knows we want him to succeed, and I think he's going to be real comfortable here."
Axford replaces Chris Perez, who had been critical of Indians management and finally wore out his welcome last year with a 4.33 ERA and a June arrest followed by a September plea of no contest on misdemeanor charges for having a package containing nine ounces of marijuana shipped to his home in the family dog's name.
The Brewers traded Axford to the St. Louis Cardinals on Aug. 30 for reliever Michael Blazek. With an abundance of young power arms in their bullpen, the Cardinals did not offer a contract to Axford, who turns 31 on April 1 and had a $5 million salary last year.
"I was actually in a plane when it happened," Axford said. "I was on my way to San Diego from Toronto. It was about a five-hour flight. I remember tweeting about it when I first took off. 'What should I do on this five-hour flight? Well, maybe I'll get my resume together in case I don't have a job when I land.' Turns out when I landed I didn't have a job."
Not for long, though. Axford said he was contacted by 14 teams within days of being non-tendered with opportunities in both leagues, several as a closer. Cleveland is four and a half hours from Axford's home just outside Hamilton, Ontario. Less than 10 minutes into a phone conversation with Francona, Axford said he had all the answers he needed about the team, the clubhouse atmosphere, Francona and his coaching staff and the city.
"He was very upfront," Axford said. "And's very passionate about everything he had to say. It just seemed like the perfect fit for me."
Francona said the Indians were "trying to find the guy that maybe is undervalued," like outfielder Ryan Rayburn last year and outfielder David Murphy this offseason, and "Axford, I think falls into that category."
He signed for $4.5 million with incentives that could reach $1.75 million if he finishes 63 games. To do that, Axford will have to stay in the closer's role, something he's convinced will happen.
"I know I can do it," he said. "And I knew I could last year... Those first four games I had last year, that wasn't me."
Axford was in Pittsburgh with the Brewers on the day they traded him to St. Louis. Shortly before the deal was announced, Axford and Brewers pitching coach Rick Kranitz worked on a different slider grip, a project he shelved in St. Louis but which is now a focal point of his spring.
"Last year, I just started combining my slider and curveball together," Axford said. "One was a curveball, and one was a slurve. And they were both about the same speed. So now it's making sure I differentiate the two pitches.
"I want to be more consistent with my curveball. But the slider that I kind of just pushed away is something that I'm trying to recover, bring back. And it's harder and better than it was last year. That's going to be good having that third pitch, because that's where the success was in 2010 and 2011, as well."
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Jack Etkin has covered professional baseball since 1981 for such outlets as the Kansas City Star, Rocky Mountain News, Baseball America, The Sports Xchange and MLB.com.