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Photo by Jeffrey Phelps/AP

By Darryl G. Smart

John Axford’s baseball journey has taken a number of twists and turns, and was hoping to make a triumphant return to where it all began on Tuesday.

And for the first time since 2018, Axford got his chance, coming out of the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen after being acquired by the team that took a chance on him in 2009.

Unfortunately, Axford suffered another twist in what looked to be a storytale return to the Big Leagues. The right-handed pitcher from Port Dover will have an MRI on his elbow after facing five batters in a 6-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“It’s not the way you want it to go,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell told the media after the game. “It’s unfortunate. The fact that he got himself back here was a real credit to him. You want the story to be good every night. Sometimes there’s some unfortunate stories as well.”

Less than 24 hour hours earlier, it was certainly a different story. Axford was traded to the Brewers by the Toronto Blue Jays for $1 and was set to make his return.

“Honestly, I’m still trying to fathom a lot of it,” Axford told MLB.com. “I don’t know if the Brewers were really on my radar at the time of trying to see if getting back to the big leagues again was going to work for me this year, and it pulled together very quickly, so I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I know when I get to the ballpark and see that uniform again, the emotions will start spilling over, that’s for sure. This is quite the thing right now. I’m nearly speechless. I’m still trying to figure it all out.”

Getting back to the Brewers in the fashion he has is certainly typical of Axford’s unique and captivating baseball odyssey. His last MLB appearance was in September 2018. During Spring Training in 2019, Axford injured his elbow, and injured it again in a Rookie Ball rehab stint. After that game, he had surgery to remove a bone spur.

That was the last time Axford pitched in a game.

Cue the comeback. And in typical Axford fashion, he didn’t do it in a conventional way.

Already training to pitch for Team Canada’s quest to get to the Tokyo Olympics, Axford began this season in the Rogers Sportsnet studio as an analyst and even pitched in with colour commentary during Blue Jays games. 

“That was the job,” Axford said. “I was there for Opening Day with the Blue Jays. I was supposed to pick up some more games in the second half.”

Then on May 26, Axford threw against the United States in an exhibition game. It was the first time in two years he pitched in a game.

“I’m proud of my work and preparation to get to this point,” Axford said in a Instagram post after the game. “I’m 38 years old. I haven’t pitched in an MLB game since September 2018. I hadn’t even thrown to a catcher since March 2020. Sometimes a net, a wall, and a little motivation is all you need. So here it comes…I’m gonna brag a bit now…hahaha… I had two strikeouts, velocity was back up to 95-96, and I wore some sick flood pants to really pull the look together. Baseball is humbling in many ways. But, right now, I choose to be proud.”

That’s when Axford began to turn some heads. And Axford traded in his tailored suit in the studio for cleats, signing a minor league contract with the Blue Jays on June 20. 

The first stop was in Florida, throwing one game for the Florida Complex League Blue Jays. In one inning, Axford struck one out, gave up a hit and got the save.

Axford then was quickly moved to Trenton, NJ., to join the Buffalo Bisons, who were playing there while the Toronto Blue Jays occupied their home. Again, Axford impressed in his 10.2 innings over nine games, striking out 14, with a 0.84 ERA and WHIP of 0.47. 

Despite MLB’s Friday trade deadline, the Brewers were able to pick Axford up because he was a minor league player not on a 40-man roster.

And now Axford is back where his rags to riches MLB career began.

Axford threw for the Brewers from 2009-13 and set a team record by collecting 46 saves in 2011. In 2011, Axford had a franchise-record 43 consecutive saves without a blown opportunity.

During his five years in Milwaukee, Axford had 106 saves and ranks second to Dan Plesac (133) on the franchise’s career saves list.

His career record is 38-34 with a 3.86 ERA and 144 saves in 543 games with Milwaukee, St. Louis (2013), Cleveland (2014), Pittsburgh (2014), Colorado (2015), Oakland (2016-17), Toronto (2018) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (2018).