College Baseball 360 Fall Notebook – Oct. 3, 2011

October 3, 2011
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Here’s a look at some noteworthy players with college connections and other things going on in the world of college baseball…

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The Ax Man Cometh…

If you have spent any time watching the MLB Playoffs, Baseball Tonight or the MLB Network this season you have likely heard the incredible story about how Milwaukee’s John Axford has gone from cell phone salesman to Big League closer in the course of the last few years. However, that’s not even half of the journey that “Ax”, “The Ax Man” – pick your moniker – has gone through to get to where is is now.

Axford, who posted a 1.95 ERA with 46 saves for the NL Central champs this season, turned down the Seattle Mariners after they drafted him in the seventh round of the 2001 MLB Draft. He opted to play instead at Notre Dame, where he went to the College World Series as a freshman in 2002.

He was 5-2 that year after making 12 starts with five appearances out of the Irish bullpen. His fourth relief appearance was one of his most memorable. Axford entered game two of the Tallahassee Super Regional in the middle innings of what would be a 12-5 Irish loss.

In the fifth inning of that game, Florida State fans did what they always do-sang Oh Canada as the Seminoles prepared to bat in the home half of the inning. It’s doubtful the FSU faithful even gave thought to the fact that the lanky 6’6 Axford-a native of Port Dover, Ontario-was on the mound during their spirited chorus. “It fired me up a little,” Axford told me the next day.

While Axford’s 4 2/3 innings in that loss won’t go down in the Irish records books, they were important none the less. Axford did that day what a pro does. He did the same thing Tim Wakefield did for the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS when he chewed-up 3 1/3 innings in relief in a blowout loss to the Yankees-he held the line. Notre Dame, led by current LSU skipper Paul Mainieri (current Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor was his pitching coach), knocked off the top ranked Seminoles 3-1 the next day to advance to Omaha.

Axford made one relief appearance at the CWS, but it would be the last NCAA Tournament appearance of his career. While teammates like Steve Stanley and Brian Stavisky were drafted that year by Billy Beane and eventually mentioned in Michael Lewis‘ book Moneyball, Axford is one of just two players from that ’02 team to make it to the MLB (they other was Matt Macri who missed the postseason due to injury).

He pitched for Mainieri and O’Connor again in 2003, missed all of ’04 after Tommy John surgery and then complete his collegiate career at Canisus in 2006.

But it wasn’t the elbow surgery that held Axford back as much as his problems with control. The Ax Man had 133 strikeouts, but walked 109 with 21 wild pitches in his two seasons under the Golden Dome. Things were no better as Canisus, where he walked and struckout 79 with 15 wild pitches in 70 innings, while going 3-8.

The guy who was considered by some publications to be the top prep player in Canada in 2001 could lather and rinse, but he just couldn’t repeat. Axford could be brilliantly dominant one day and then dumbfoundedly disastrous the next. Think Nuke Laloosh.

It was never more evident that two midweek starts for the Irish in 2003. Axford struckout 12 with no walks in 7.0 innings in an April 9 win over Western Michigan. However, he followed that start with 5 BB and just 4 K in a win over Central Michigan. Throw-in a 7 BB performance in 2 1/3 innings of relief in a Big East Tournament loss to Rutgers that May and it’s easy to see why it took the guy who now sports the second most recognizable facial hair in the Big Leagues to matriculate his way to Milwaukee.

Ask anyone who knows John Axford though, and they will tell you he is as good a person as he is a pitcher. He’s a case study in perseverance paying off over the long haul. Axford is doing now what he did that day in June in Tallahassee-holding the line.

The Dan Man Can…

Dan Johnson

Tampa Bay Rays first baseman, Dan Johnson, is another big league player with college connections. Johnson is probably now best known for his two-out, two-strike home run in the bottom of the ninth last week against the Yankees to help propel the Rays into the AL Playoffs. Like Axford, Johnson is also well traveled.

Johnson started his collegiate career at Butler University in Indianapolis before transferring to a junior college and eventually Nebraska. He batted .361 with 25 home runs and 86 RBIs in 2001 to help the program reach its first ever College World Series.

The 32-year-old made his Big League debut with the Oakland A’s in 2005. He stayed there through 2008, when Tampa Bay claimed him off waivers. Johnson then spent the 2009 season with the Yokohama Baystars in Japan. He has spent the last two seasons back in Tampa. His last hit prior to last week’s dramatic home run was in April.

Johnson and Axford are among 175 former college players on the 40-man rosters of this year’s MLB Playoff teams. Click Here to see more.

Who Needs High School…

Vanderbilt's Chris Harvey

Bryce Harper is probably the most famous player to skip his final year of high school to prepare for a future in baseball, but he is not the only one. Harper skipped his last two years of high school to enroll and play for a year at a junior college before the Washington Nationals made him their top draft pick.

Like Harper, Chris Harvey has jumped from high school to college early. However, unlike Harper, Harvey is doing at a higher level – both academically and athletically.

Harvey, a catcher like Harper, should be a senior at Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania, but instead he is working toward a shot to be Vanderbilt’s catcher in a year Tim Corbin‘s Commodores are coming off their first College World Series appearance.

The 6’6 Harvey was projected by many to go in the first three rounds of the 2012 MLB Draft, but the itch to play college ball was something he could not resist.

“It’s something that I wanted to do for a while,” Harvey recently told Max Preps. “This gives me an extra year of college, it helps me become a more well-rounded person, and the academics had a lot to do with it. I always wanted to come to Vanderbilt, and to be honest, me and my family weren’t really depending on what we were hearing [from Major League scouts and teams]. I think they basically all said what I wanted to hear.”

Other players who left high school in recent years to begin their college careers early include Levi Michael of North Carolina and UCLA’s Trevor Bauer. Things worked out well for both of them, as both made it to Omaha with their teams. Bauer was the third overall pick by Arizona in this year’s MLB Draft, while Michael went 30th overall to Minnesota.

Who Needs Two?

Speaking of Vanderbilt, tickets are on sale now for the DeMarini Fall Classic between the Commodores and Cal State Fullerton. The two games will take place October 22 & 23 at Vandy’s Hawkins Field in Nashville. The Titans are led by first year head coach Rick Vanderhook, who was an assistant on UCLA’s 2010 CWS runner-up team. Vanderhook was hired after Dave Serrano left Fullerton to become head coach at Tennessee.

Missouri and Iowa Lending A Helping Hand…

The Missouri and Iowa baseball teams will play a pair of fall exhibition games this weekend (October 8 & 9) and the proceeds from the games will go to a worthy cause.

All proceeds from those games will go directly toward rebuilding Joplin, Missouri’s Little League baseball programs, which were ravaged by tornadoes last May. Saturday’s baseball game will be held prior to the Missouri-Kansas State football game. First pitch for the exhibition is set for 12:30 (Central Time) and kickoff for the football game is at 2:30 pm. Sunday’s game starts at 1 pm.

Fans who can’t attend the games but would like to donate to the cause can contact Missouri director of baseball operations, Evan Pratte, at 573-882-1917 or via e-mail at prattee@missouri.edu.

CLICK HERE to see a video with Mizzou head coach Tim Jamieson further discussing the Joplin relief effort.

Schedules, Schedules and More Schedules…

Now that October is here, we will continue to see more and more college baseball teams release their 2012 schedules. we will link them along with team rosters on our master Schedule Page as they are released.

Long Beach State has the best non-conference slate that I have seen so far. Cal, UCLA, USC, Oregon, Arizona State Washington State, and Wichita State are all among the teams the Dirt Bags will face in 2012.

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