BOSTON — Among the arms in the red-hot St. Louis Cardinals bullpen are a trio of players with various connections to Western New York.
• The native: Kevin Siegrist, the Cards’ shutdown lefty, was born in Buffalo and grew up in Lewiston.
• The collegian: John Axford, pitched one year in Buffalo for Canisius College on the road back from Tommy John surgery.
• The pro: Edward Mujica pitched three years of Triple-A ball in Buffalo when the Bisons were a Cleveland affiliate.
Through divergent roads, they were all at Fenway Park on Wednesday night as the Cardinals and Boston Red Sox opened the World Series. The game was not complete in time for this edition. Full coverage is at BuffaloNews.com.
“This is unbelievable. You can’t take it for granted at all,” said Siegrist, 24. “It’s an honor to do it my first year with the Cardinals and these teammates. It’s an amazing experience.”
“I’ve been working hard every day and you always believe someday it will pay you back,” said Mujica, 29, who had 37 saves before being moved out of the closer’s role in September. “You have to believe that. This year was one of the best years of my career. Those save opportunities to be the closer for this team. Making the All-Star Game. World Series. That’s a lot for one year.”
Siegrist has become one of the Cardinals’ most distinctive stories. He was raised in Lewiston and lived there until his freshman year in high school. That’s when his family moved to Wellington, Fla., near West Palm Beach, a place they often visited in his youth to see an aunt.
He was drafted in the 41st round by the Cardinals in 2008 out of Palm Beach State College, and pitched in Batavia in 2009 on his way up the organizational ladder. He pitched in both Double-A and Triple-A this year before making his big-league debut on June 6.
And he’s been dynamite ever since, posting a 0.45 ERA (2 earned runs in 39∏ innings) and striking out 50. His fastball has been pushing 98-99 mph during the postseason.
“It’s just confidence in my fastball and the ability to pound the strike zone and stay ahead of hitters,” Siegrist said. “I don’t do too much. I stay within myself.”
Axford, 30, was acquired on Aug. 30 from Milwaukee, ending a checkered career with the Brewers that included 49 straight saves over the 2011-12 seasons. Oddly enough, his wife had a premonitiion Axford was about to join one of his fiercest rivals – and the team that beat the Brewers in the 2011 National League Championship Series.
“My wife always had a thought even in 2011 that at some point I would play for the Cardinals,” Axford said. “She gets interesting feelings sometimes and that was one of them. I remember thinking that can’t happen. We’re in division, we’re rivals. You just didn’t think that was going to happen. You don’t want to trade a player in division usually so I never thought that I would be here.”
Axford’s wild career path has been well-documented locally and around baseball. He blew out his arm at Notre Dame and landed at Canisius in 2006 – where he had a 5.01 ERA in 14 appearances while striking out 75 and walking 75 in 70 innings.
He flamed out in one year with the Yankees and by 2009 was selling cell phones and bartending in Hamilton, Ont. But his velocity started to return and his control improved and he was in the big leagues by that September.
He saved 105 games for the Brewers from 2010-2012 before he started to lose velocity and was moved out of the closer’s role and eventually traded with his ERA at 4.45 this season. The Cardinals have worked on his control and Axford had a 1.74 ERA in 13 September outings and has allowed only one run in four postseason appearances.
“It does not seem like the same season for me,” Axford said. “I’ve been here for two months now and have gotten to know these guys real well and be accepted into the Cardinal family.”
Mujica pitched 74 games for the Bisons from 2006-2008, the final three years of the Indians affiliation. He pitched 53 games in the big leagues those seasons as well, getting very familiar with the ride back and forth on I-90.
“When I was with Cleveland and in Buffalo, I was a kid. I was 22-23 years old,” Mujica said. “Right now mentally and physically I’m much stronger than I was in the past. Year by year, you have to start learning different things every single day and that’s why.”
Starting in 2009 with San Diego, Mujica has been a regular big leaguer as he’s made 328 appearances with the Padres, Miami Marlins and Cardinals. He saved 14 games with the Bisons in 2007 but didn’t get many chances as a closer in the big leagues until this year when Jason Motte was injured.
Mujica converted his first 21 saves of the season, finishing fifth in the National League. And he did it all mostly with softer split-finger pitches. But he started to get fatigued in September, blowing two saves and losing the closer’s role to Trevor Rosenthal.
Despite some speculation he might be left off postseason rosters entirely, Mujica has been available and appeared once in each of the first two series. He allowed one run in two innings.
“The last month of the season was a rough one,” Mujica said. “I’m having trouble in my legs but nothing in my arm. … They took me out of the closer’s role but right now I’m just waiting for my turn. I’m good physically. I’m excited.”