MILWAUKEE – Seated next to each other along a row of lockers in the Milwaukee Brewers clubhouse, relievers John Axford and Jim Henderson share a laugh as they look at their iPads.
It’s a scene that has played out regularly since Axford and Henderson were reunited last season, when the latter ended a 10-year minor- league odyssey by being recalled by the Brewers in July 2012.
Both men wound up in the Brewers organization after previous attempts to work their way up the ladder didn’t pan out. Axford signed with Milwaukee as a free agent before the 2008 season and Henderson came a year later.
Though they didn’t play together, they knew of each other along the way — sharing the Canadian Baseball Network’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year award in 2009 — and by the time they got to Milwaukee the friendship was strong.
“Honestly, it’s just the Canadian connection,” said Axford, who along with Henderson played for Canada in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. “We just kind of missed each other every step of the way. When you’re brought up, that hand is kind of extended so to speak.”
Simcoe, Ont., native Axford emerged late in the 2010 season, supplanting future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman as the Brewers closer. He quickly won over Milwaukee with his blazing fastball and befuddled opposing hitters in 2011, converting 46 saves, including a franchise record 43 in a row, as the Brewers won their first division title since 1982.
But the magic disappeared, almost suddenly, last season. Axford, 30, lost his command and during one painful mid-season stretch was removed from the closer’s role.
Henderson, a 30-year-old native of Calgary, took his place and recorded saves in his first two outings.
By August, Axford returned to form and closed out the season converting 17 of his last 18 save opportunities and finished with 35 on the season while going 5-8 with a 4.67 ERA. But he’s struggled out of the gate in 2013, and allowed nine runs in his first four outings, leaving Brewers manager Ron Roenicke no choice but to move Henderson into the ninth inning and let Axford work out his issues elsewhere in the game.
Yet, the two remain close. There’s no sign of jealousy or animosity. They go about their business.
“We’re all close in the bullpen and one thing you don’t need down there is animosity toward each other when it comes to roles,” Axford said. “That’s something that can get not just a bullpen, but also a team in trouble. Built up emotions of sorts, whether they’re on purpose or not, it’s something you just don’t need. And in this bullpen, we’re always fighting for each other, we’re always there for each other every step of the way. If one guy can’t do it, the next guy will. We’re supportive of that.”
Henderson has, for the most part, excelled in the position. Through the first 32 games, the right-hander has converted all seven of his save opportunities and has not been scored upon in 12 of his 14 outings this season while posting a 2-1 record and a 1.29 ERA.
The situation is similar to 2010, when Axford moved into the closer’s role in place of Hoffman, who was removed from the ninth inning early in the season. Hoffman’s impact on Axford’s development has been undeniable, from the way Axford prepares for a game to the way he handles the media, regardless of the outcome.
“I don’t have the track record or history of success as Trevor, but that’s what he did with me,” Axford said. “If he saw certain things, we’d chat about it along the way.
“Jim’s been great about it. He’s been doing a fantastic job with every detail of the job. I think he’s really embraced it. If ever there’s a question, he’s not afraid to ask and I’m always willing to try and help.”
And he’s also taken what he’s learned from Hoffman’s willingness to provide support and applied that to his relationship with Henderson.
“When we’re in the bullpen, we might have a five-run lead but there are runners on base and he’ll know that situation means I’ll be getting up,” Henderson said. “His experience helps a lot.”
Even with his recent success, Henderson knows he’ll likely move back to the eighth if Axford regains his form and returns to the closer’s role.
That, too, won’t be a problem.
“He’s a pretty outstanding guy,” Henderson said. “He knows he’s got the stuff and ability to be back in that role at some point. I’m fine with it. He has over 100-plus saves, compared to my seven. So it’s not an issue on my end.”