Axford: small conference experience, big-time closer

*RP John Axford (above with Canisius) is one of two NLCS closers who called the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference home. 2012 Canadians draft list

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By Bob Elliott

MILWAUKEE _ Scouting directors have been flocking to UCLA and USC for years to see what arms might develop into major-league closers.

Cross checkers have been watching top university programs in Florida, Texas and Arizona.

And the closers on the two teams still alive in the National League are from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, ranked 22nd of 31 NCAA conferences by

You’ve heard about Port Dover’s John Axford, who pitched his final season for the Canisius College Golden Griffins in Buffalo for coach Mike McRae during the spring of 2006.

Axford closes for the Milwaukee Brewers.

And Jason Motte was with the Iona Gaels in New Rochelle, N.Y. in 2003, where Dick Van Dyke used to stumble at the opening of each TV show.

Motte closes for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Each former MAAC grad wanted the ball Sunday night at Miller Park.

Motte to close out the best-of-seven, NL Championship Series, which his Cards lead 3-2, Axford to save Game 6 and create a deciding game Monday.

Major league clubs are still drafting closers like Huston Street (40th over-all from the University of Texas Longhorns by the Oakland A’s) now with the Colorado Rockies; Chris Sale (13th over-all, Chicago White Sox, Florida Gulf Coast College, 2010); Drew Storen (10th over-all, Washington Nationals, Stanford University, 2009), Casey Weathers (eighth over-all, Rockies, 2007) and Daniel Schlereth (26th over-all, Arizona Diamondbacks, 2008).

Yet the success of Motte (9-for-13 since taking over for Fernando Salas) and Axford (46-for-48) backs up the theory that closers emerge rather than have to be found ... like a shortstop or the catching position.

Motte has almost an interesting a background as Axford.

“He was a catcher at Iona, a great catch and throw guy, man what an arm,” said Mike McRae, who coached at Niagara University against Iona when Motte was there. “But he couldn’t hit a lick.”

After hitting .222, .175 and .176 in his first three seasons in the minors, Motte was converted to the mound by the Cards.

“These kids,” said TBS’ announcer Dennis Eckersley, a Hall of Fame closer, “they never cease to amaze me. I could paint ... they’ve both got gassss.”

We’re not sure if The Eck had three or four extra s’s for emphasis on the end of the word gas.

“I don’t remember where we ranked as a conference,” Axford said Sunday night. “The year I was at Canisius we had 18 wins and at one time out of 120 schools were ranked the fourth worst.

“A lot has changed, now they’ve had three straight seasons of 35 or more wins. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Motte.”

Was there a fierce rivalry between Canisius and Iona?

“I was only there the one year, after four years at Notre Dame, not long enough to find out,” Axford said. “We did have a rivalry with the University of Buffalo after a bench-clearing brawl. And a bunch of close games against Niagara.

“It’s a good post season for the MAAC.”

Under McRae, Axford was 3-8 with a 5.01 ERA in 14 starts, walking 75 and striking out 75 in 70 innings. His final outing he beat the Manhattan Jaspers, who went on to win the MAAC and beat Joba Chamberlain of the Nebraska Cornhuskers of Game 1 of NCAA regionals.

Axford’s former coach at Canisius, McRae, the only Canadian head coach at an NCAA Division I school, has been watching Axford’s outings.

“I see lots of similarities in him now to when he was with us,” McRae said from Niagara Falls, Ont. “When he misses, he misses up and it’s for the same reasons when he was with us.

“His velocity is way up, 99 mph the other night. Our goal when we asked him to come here after he hurt his arm was to get him into a regular routine, get him healthier and stronger.”

Axford pitched with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish winning the Big East as a freshman and a sophomore. His junior year he took a medical red shirt due to Tommy John surgery and only pitched a few innings as a senior.

“John has overcome a lot of adversity,” McRae said.