In Cardinals debut, Axford delivers perfect inning

In Cardinals debut, Axford delivers perfect inning

In Cardinals debut, Axford delivers perfect inning

PITTSBURGH -- John Axford estimates that he finally arrived at The Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel around midnight Friday, after spending several hours trying to get out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to join his new team.

Initially expected to land in Pittsburgh in time to be in uniform for Friday's game, Axford was first delayed because he arrived at the airport too close to his flight time to have his equipment bag checked. He tried unsuccessfully to stuff his glove and cleats into a carry-on bag.

His next flight was then delayed by a storm and separate fire on the tarmac, he said.

Once finally in Pittsburgh, Axford made sure to show up at PNC Park plenty early Saturday. He got right to work, too. Axford, whom the Cardinals acquired from Milwaukee for a player to be named, met with manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, who shared a scouting report with the right-handed reliever.

It was a scouting report not detailing any hitter he would face over the weekend, but the one the Cardinals once used on him.

"I'm definitely looking forward to working with a new staff," Axford said. "You can talk to your own coaching staff and hitters and you can get a very good outlook on what you're doing. But sometimes when you have an opposing team who has been watching you for years and trying to figure you out, they may capture things that you didn't realize. That's going to be a great thing coming in here."

"Obviously, we want to get him back to where he was in 2011 or as close as we can to that," Lilliquist added. "We identified some things mechanically and talked about that today. We talked a little bit about pitch selection. I had a good conversation with him and we'll see when we can get him in there."

Hours later, he offered a strong first impression in the Cardinals' 7-1 loss to the Pirates. The third of four relievers to pitch behind starter Lance Lynn, Axford needed only eight pitches to retire the side in order in the seventh. He sandwiched a groundout between two flyouts to right.

"He did a nice job," Matheny said. "The ball was jumping out of his hand. Also threw a good breaking ball in there."

Axford joined the Cardinals carrying a 4.45 ERA only two years after collecting a National League-best 46 saves. That ERA is still recovering from a poor start. Axford was scored upon in his first four appearances, allowing nine hits (including four homers) and nine runs in 3 1/3 innings.

Axford said Saturday that he believes a bout of dead arm carried over from Spring Training and contributed to those early troubles. That would explain, too, why it took several appearances for his fastball velocity to return to career normal levels.

"I've never experienced that during the season," Axford said. "Typically, I go through that a couple times a year and it always happens in Spring Training. You get those few days out of the way and you just keep going. That just seemed to linger a little bit longer. I'm certainly not making an excuse. I had no physical issue. I didn't know what was going on. … Obviously, it was insanely frustrating because my first three outings of the year were terrible. It frustrates you when you know things feel good, when you feel good, but you can't figure it out, you can't put your finger on it."

Since then, Axford has an ERA of 3.10 in 59 appearances.

As they did on Saturday, the Cardinals plan to utilize Axford, at least early, in lower-leverage situations in order to see where he fits best in the bullpen.

"I enjoyed my time in Milwaukee and had some great times there, great moments there," Axford said. "And certainly some rough ones. Recently, it seems to be more of the latter. I think a change of scenery -- especially coming to the Cardinals, who have the type of storied history that they do -- it's great to come over here and be on a winning team and start a little bit of fire in me again to get me going. I think that will be great."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.