Axford looks for home in Rockies

 * The Colorado Rockies went to a full-court press to sign free-agent RP John Axford (Port Dover, Ont.). He joins LaTroy Hawkins, Rex Brothers and Rafael Betancourt as former closers in the Colorado bullpen. ....  

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By Bob Elliott

SCOTTSDALE, Az. _ If Toronto Blue Jays management took a tour of the Colorado Rockies spring training facility they would gasp and then say two words:

“Goodbye Dunedin.”

The $168 million US facility the Rockies share with the Arizona Diamondbacks is located at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. The complex was voted the best in the state by and the No. 1 spring training site by Stadium Journey.

The two teams take turns playing home games at the 11,000-seat stadium.

On the Rockies side are:

Four cloverleaf diamonds.

Two replica fields, the size of Coors Field.

Two half fields.

Batting cages.

A two-tiered weight room named in memory of the late Keli McGregor, who then interim Paul Beeston wanted to hire before taking over as president in 2008. On the second floor players and staff ride stationary bikes looking out glass windows onto the scenic vista of the mountains in the distance.

Enough video rooms, film rooms, class rooms and locker rooms to hold a teacher’s convention, 85,000 square feet.

And ... let’s not forget ... two Canadians.

“Do you like our Canadian numbers?” asked reliever John Axford showing the No. 66 painted on his black batting helmet.

First baseman Justin Morneau wears No. 33.

The Rockies used a full court press to sign Axford in January.

New Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich called.

Manager Walt Weiss phoned the free agent.

New pitching coach Steve Foster and bullpen coach Darren Holmes dialed Ancaster too.

“They wanted to know where I was mentally, if I could handle pitching at Coors Field,” said Axford. “I wasn’t. If I was worried I’d be more committed to keeping the ball down. I probably have a worse ERA in Cincinnati than in Denver.”

Sure enough, the wise ones know their numbers.

Axford is 1-1 with two saves and a 4.05 ERA in 14 games at Coors with 16 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings.

Meanwhile, at Great American Park in Cincy, he’s 0-5 with a 10.80 ERA in 15 games, fanning 13 in 11 2/3 innings.

“In 2011 -- my best year ever (1.95 ERA, 46 saves with the Milwaukee Brewers) -- I blew a save opening day and opened with an ERA of 54.00,” said Axford. He inherited a 6-3 lead, allowed a single to Brandon Phillips, walked Joey Votto and watched Scott Rolen reached on an unsuccessful fielder’s choice. Axford struck out Jay Bruce and Johnny Gomes hit a run-scoring fly ball.

Two out. One to go.

Catcher Ramon Hernandez hit a three-run walk off.

Axford was made almost as many outgoing calls as the ones he received. He called former Rockies lefty Jeff Francis, current closer LaTroy Hawkins, a teammate with the 2010-11 Brewers and spoke to Morneau. The first baseman said after the Baseball Canada banquet “we sat up talking until it was time for me to go to the airport for my flight.”

“Justin knew the manager and the city even though he’d only been there a year, Jeff knew the city and the club he was there so long,” said Axford, who enjoyed Denver as a visiting player.

Hawkins enters the year as the Rockies closer in his 20th and final season.

“(LaTroy) mentioned if we’re successful he may not be able to handle the work load, so we have some experienced guys like Rex Brothers, Boone Logan and myself to help,” said Axford. At 42, Hawkins is the oldest on a major-league roster.

The Rockies have three former closers in camp: Rafael Betancourt, lefty Brothers and Axford. Adam Ottavino is an option as a set-up man. A non-roster invitee, Axford signed a $2.6 million US one-year contract. And on Sunday the Rockies added Axford to their 40-man roster.

At the 2013 WBC Axford’s fastball was clocked at 98 MPH but his velocity was down to 91 on opening day for the Brewers.

“I was too geared up,” said Axford. “I was excited to pitch for my country. I’d do it again, I should have started my throwing program earlier. I didn’t get my velocity up again until the end of April.”

Axford had four rough outings to start the season allowing nine runs on nine hits (four homers) and two walks in 3 1/3 innings as he blew a save and was tagged with two losses for a 24.30 ERA.

He put together 23 straight scoreless appearances from May 14 until July 6, working 20 1/3 innings as he went 3-0 with six holds behind Calgary Jimmy Henderson. But it’s a long way down from 24.30 as a reliever. The streak lowered him to 3.86. At the deadline he was moved to the St. Louis Cardinals and pitched in the World Series. Last year he split time between the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Axford has been on the disabled list once: when he was starting at class-A Brevard County in 2008 on seven-day DL ... over the all-star break. Basically he missed a start.

With 116 career saves, third amongst all-time Canadians behind Eric Gagne (187) and John Hiller (125) Axford hopes to add to his total.