Somebody needs to tell Dylan Axelrod that the AL East is the toughest division in baseball.
Axelrod stepped up when the Sox needed a stout start on Wednesday, delivering 7⅓ innings of one-run ball against a Baltimore lineup that gave Chris Sale fits. The start against the Orioles was his third against an AL East team on the road this year, and he's 3-for-3 in exceeding expectations.
The raw numbers: 2-1, 1.71 ERA, 1.10 WHIP.
The box score lines:
But here's life on the fringe for you: Immediately after the win, Axelrod lost the numbers game. Since his next turn would have taken place in September, the Sox demoted him to Double-A Birmingham, and Dan Hayes says Jose Lopez is on the way up. If it holds, the move gives the Sox the option of retaining Lopez on a postseason roster if a postseason roster is a thing, and if Lopez is a major-league ballplayer (both are uncertain).
At least Axelrod was given a lighter sentence. By heading to Birmingham instead of Charlotte, Axelrod can return to the majors faster than the required 10-day waiting period because the Barons' season ends on Sept. 3. The Knights are playoff-bound, and over .500 for the first time since 2006.
I'm guessing Robin Ventura will turn to Axelrod at least once more in September. Gavin Floyd is on the DL, and it doesn't sound like he's going to be ready to come back at the end of those 15 days, so TBA will likely be the fifth starter. Ventura will have his choice of Axelrod, Hector Santiago and/or Phil Humber based on the rest situation and handedness demands.
By numbers and achievements alone, Axelrod deserves the easy nod. However, exposure also plays a part. While Axelrod has those three strong starts against those AL East teams to his name, he also has three non-quality starts this season. And probably not by coincidence, two are against teams who had already faced (and struggled against) him in a prior start:
Now, if you want to throw Axelrod a bone, you can note that neither of these 2012 starts were on regular rest. The Detroit start came a few days after he threw an inning in relief, and Ventura used Axelrod on four days' rest against the Blue Jays in an attempt to steal five innings before the All-Star break. That decision worked out exactly as well as one would think.
That excuse doesn't hold much water to me, or I'd at least need to see him prove he can handle an opponent twice first. Teams getting a second look at him probably get a much better idea of what he's about, because he doesn't have much to be about. He's essentially a two-pitch pitcher, and one of them is an 87 mph fastball.
He covers a lot of the gap with know-how. He'll throw either pitch in any count (his 53 sliders gave him the third-highest single-game total of breaking balls by any starter this season), he can subtract from his pitches (to say he adds would be a bit strong), and he does that all on both sides of the plate. He isn't afraid of hitting guys, which is a capacity that he doesn't abuse. Throw in a good defense behind him, and as seventh starters go, the Sox can get a good game out of him.
(The opposite of Axelrod is Zach Stewart, who had velocity, but not a lot of movement, and not a lot of command, and fell into predictable counts. And now he doesn't even have much in the way of velocity. Stewart also started on Wednesday, but he fared much, much worse. Like, nine-runs-over-three-innings worse.)
In the postgame comments from the Orioles' clubhouse, Axelrod made a fine first impression on Chris Davis:
"He was really tough," Orioles designated hitter Chris Davis said. "We knew what we had ahead of us going into the game, he wasn't going to overpower us with anything, liked his slider a lot. He mixed it up, changed speeds, and he pounded the strike zone. You've got to tip your hat to him. They came out and swung the bats well, gave him a nice lead. He really didn't need much tonight."
Buck Showalter also praised Axelrod while offering insight on how the Orioles intended to solve his secret sauce:
"He's going to mix in just enough fastballs," Showalter said. "He's got two breaking balls. … Any time you can command two breaking balls and have that type of confidence in them, you're going to have a chance, especially when you've got a little lead to work with where you can create some aggressiveness in hitters.
"You've really got to be patient with him, because you're going to see a steady dose of different breaking balls. Everybody knew it coming in, but getting behind like that certainly didn't help matters."
Watching Axelrod on tape is likely different from standing in the box against him, because there really aren't many pitchers like him. Of course, one reason there aren't many pitchers like Axelrod is because hitters figure out crafty-righty material rather quickly, which is a reminder to not get carried away.
I don't want the American League to get to know Axelrod, because I like having him around. I don't know who wouldn't want him to be a credible pitcher for as long as possible (besides the day's opponents), because he's one of the great baseball stories. He's an underdog for his independent-ball roots alone, and he's undersized, underpowered and unorthodox on top of that. Even his voice doesn't belong in a big-league clubhouse.
In the other column are his results, which I'll boil down to one stat -- the Sox are 6-4 in Axelrod's starts. You can slice and dice and doubt how he got there, but for a seventh or eighth starter living one isolated outing at a time, that's really all that matters. He's grabbing wins against odds, and occasionally outpitching Sale or Jake Peavy in the same series to do it.
If you're looking ahead to September, Axelrod has never faced the Los Angeles Angels or Tampa Bay Rays, and he's only pitched two innings of relief against both the Royals and the Twins. There will be openings to spring Axelrod on an unfamiliar foe when the Sox are a starter short; likewise, it would be great if the Sox could avoid creating opportunities for Axelrod that aren't there (see: his second start against Toronto).
At some point, both Axelrod and the Sox (or another team) will have to know if he can handle the same opponent twice, but I'd rather see that experiment play out in April or May.