MESA, Ariz. — John Axford feels he’s in good shape for his upcoming stint with Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic.
Nothing could have prepared the A’s reliever for his last WBC experience in 2013.
Axford was warming up in the bullpen at Chase Field when a huge brawl broke out in the late innings of a first-round game between Canada and Mexico. Tensions escalated after a Canadian hitter dropped down a bunt single in the top of the ninth with Canada already leading 9-3.
When Mexico pitcher Arnold Leon, then an A’s minor leaguer, retaliated by hitting Rene Tosoni in the back with a pitch, both benches emptied and multiple fights broke out.
Axford was loosening in the ‘pen when “all hell broke loose.”
“I was the last one running out from the ‘pen,” he said. “I got in there and fists were already flying everywhere, people were getting punched in the face. So I didn’t know what to do. I was on the outskirts.
“If you watch a video you can see me kind of in the foreground shuffling through the melee of people. It was crazy what happened. I ended up getting in there, grabbing players and trying to pull people off each other.”
Making the scene more chaotic, fights were breaking out in the crowd too.
“The Canadian fans were outnumbered, so I think there was a little worry about some of our families at the time too,” he said. “We were curious and hoping everyone got out of there fine because beer bottles were coming out of the stands. Some things were hitting our players.”
According to media reports from that day, Canada pitching coach Denis Boucher was hit in the face by a full water bottle. Then Canada shortstop Cale Iorg angrily threw the bottle back into the stands.
Axford collected himself and pitched a scoreless bottom of the ninth in a 10-3 Canada victory, but as he recalls: “I remember throwing a fastball in on a guy and was like, ‘If I accidentally hit him, what’s gonna happen?'”
The Canadians went 1-2 and didn’t make it out of the first round in 2013. But Axford is happy to now return to his national team. He’s pitched in just one exhibition for Oakland, tossing a scoreless inning with two walks Thursday against Texas, and will throw one more bullpen session before leaving Sunday for Tampa, where Team Canada will train before first-round play begins in Miami.
Axford also says he’ll be better prepared to return to his major league club than he was following that tournament in ‘13.
Axford posted an 8.44 ERA through April that season with the Milwaukee Brewers, but says he’s now bigger and stronger than he was then.
“Things didn’t work out quite as well at the beginning of ’13 … but I think that’s just where I’ve gone the last four years as far as preparation in the offseason,” he said. “That has certainly changed leading up to spring training. I feel I’m better prepared, more physically prepared.”