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Milwaukee still a special place for John Axford

April 7, 2015

 — If John Axford was wondering what kind of reception he would get at Miller Park this week, he didn’t get to find out on opening day.

It’s not just that the Colorado Rockies reliever didn’t pitch in the game. Axford’s name wasn’t even called during the pregame introduction ceremony.

“I’m pretty sure I got skipped over,” Axford said. “They had Rafael Betancourt, who’s No. 63 — I’m No. 66 — and they stopped at 63. They didn’t carry on from there; I didn’t hear my name.”

It was an unassuming start to a series that holds extra significance for the former Brewers closer.

Axford returned to Milwaukee this week with the Rockies for his fourth opening day at Miller Park. It was his first in the visitor’s clubhouse.

“It was definitely different, but it was similar at the same time,” Axford said. “No matter what the reception is, I still love the city and the community here, I’m always back and I’ve still been a part of it even though I haven’t been here.

“I still have my ties here, and my wife and I still come back when the baseball season’s all done.”

A return to something so familiar may have been just what Axford needed after his 2-year-old son, Jameson, was bitten by a rattlesnake late last month in Scottsdale. Jameson remains in the hospital, but is recovering quicker than the doctors anticipated, considering the severity of the bite.

Axford credited the hospital staff along with family and friends for keeping him informed on his son’s progress while he has to be away with the Rockies.

“He went into surgery yesterday and my wife told me they started singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ to him when he was going in,” Axford said. “It’s a great group of people there.”

After spending last season with the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates, Axford signed a minor league contract with Colorado in early February. He’s now part of a bullpen that features another former Brewers reliever, LaTroy Hawkins, as its closer.

Opening the season in Milwaukee was one of the first things Axford said he noticed after signing with the club. The Brewers were happy to see him back in town as well.

“Ax was one of those guys, he didn’t just perform well — especially the first year that I was here — he’s a great guy,” Roenicke said. “He’s a guy everybody likes.

“It’s always nice seeing these guys come back. You hope they don’t beat you too much, but it’s great to have him back.”

While the Brewers don’t want to see him beat them, Axford is looking for better results than his last opening day in Milwaukee.

Coming off a strong 2012 season, Axford entered with a 4-3 lead on April 1, 2013. He blew that opening day save opportunity after giving up a solo home run to Dexter Fowler. The Brewers went on to win, but it was the beginning of the end for his time in the closer’s role.

Axford pitched again two days later and turned a 4-3 deficit into a 7-3 hole, as Michael Cuddyer connected for a two-run homer and Fowler added another solo shot. All told, Axford surrendered nine runs on nine hits — including four home runs — over 3 1/3 innings in his first four games of the season.

“Those things stick with you,” Axford said. “You remember and understand it. Obviously it’s the past and you don’t want to dwell on it, but at the same time I utilize it as a reminder of some perseverance and overcoming those things and making sure that they don’t happen again.”

Axford pitched in 75 games in 2013, a career high, but did not record a save. It remains the only season since he came up in 2009 that Axford did not convert at least one save opportunity.

Last season, he again opened the year in the closer’s role with the Indians, saving 10 games before giving up the job in early May. Having adjusted to a new role in each of the last two seasons, Axford knows now he just has to be ready when called upon.

“Looking at the sixth, seventh, eighth — wherever they feel that I’ll be utilized best,” Axford said. “I’ll be ready to go.”

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