Sunday, October 16, 2011

Baseball's NL Closers Came from MAAC

Basketball is certainly the dominant sport of the MAAC, and it's also the focus of this blog. But, right now, the most-prominent athletes to come out of the conference are still active in baseball's postseason, and one of them could easily determine the National League's representative to this year's World Series.

Amazingly, the closers of the teams playing in the NLCS both have ties to the MAAC.

Jason Motte of the St. Louis Cardinals, who attended Iona for three seasons before he was drafted by the Cards in in 2003, and John Axford of the Milwaukee Brewers, who attended Canisius as a senior, are the NL team's closers.

It's amazing to think that a mid-major level baseball league with its membership almost entirely located in the Northeast's snowbelt has produced two of this post-season's most-prominent major league players.

Motte has been particularly dominant, having appeared in three post-season games thus far. He has earned two saes while pitching eight total innings, allowing just one hit and striking out six without giving up a walk.

Axford has made five appearances and has pitched a total of six innings while allowing just four hits, one run two walks and striking out seven.

Surprisingly Motte, who throws in the mid-90 mph range, never pitched at Iona. There, he was a catcher and drafted in the 19th round of the 2003 baseball draft. But, after three years of minor-league struggles as a catcher he was approached by Cardinals' officials to consider a switch from to pitching.

"When they turned me into a pitcher, I wasn't thinking that, in a year-and-a-half, I was going to do well enough to make the 40-man roster," Motte told the Springfield (Mo.) News, several years ago. " I just went out there and worked hard."

Motte struggled in the minors in three-plus years as a catcher before converting to a pitcher in 2006. He batted only .190 and drove in 54 runs in 219 games.

As a junior at Iona, Motte batted .279 while setting career marks in games played (44), at-bats (154), runs scored (27), home runs (5) and walks (14). He was a Second Team All-MAAC selection in 2002 and 2003. Motte started 115 career games at Iona behind the plate, batting .277 with 11 home runs and 72 RBI.

Axford, a native of Ontario, Canada, spent three college seasons at Notre Dame before transferring to Canisius. He pitched for the Golden Griffins in 2006 and had 76 strikeouts in 70 innings there, but went undrafted by major league teams.

Shortly after the 2006 draft, though, he was signed as a free agent by the New York Yankees, released by the Yanks after the 2007 season and, then, signed by the Brewers early in spring training of the 2008 season.

He emerged as a full-time closer for Milwaukee in 2010 when former all-time saves' leader Trevor Hoffman struggled. Axford stepped in and finished the 2010 season with an 8-2 record and a 2.48 ERA and 24 saves in 27 chances. Axford voluntarily stepped aside for a late-season save opportunity so that Hoffman could step in and get career save No. 600.

He has been even better this season, recording a 1.95 ERA and an NL-best 46 saves during the 2011 regular season.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Both MAAC-produced closers appeared in Sunday night's NLCS-deciding contest, but the St. Louis Cardinals already had a 12-6 lead by then.

Axford pitched the top of the ninth, allowing one hit and striking out two.

Motte pitched the bottom of the ninth, struck out one and did not allow a hit..

The Cardinals moe on to face the Texas Rangers in the World Series that begins on Wednesday.

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