CLEVELAND — John Axford is making the best of a bad situation.
Signed to a one-year contract worth $4.5 million to become the Indians’ closer this offseason, Axford lost the job shortly into the year. But after being reduced to a mop-up role for a spell, the right-hander is back pitching in key situations, and doing it well — 1.50 ERA in his last 15 appearances with 17 strikeouts in 13⅔ innings.
“When we took him out of the closer role, trying to find a role for him was a little bit difficult,” manager Terry Francona said. “I think we’ve come to the conclusion that he’s at his best when he’s still pitching with adrenaline, game-on-the-line type situations, because he still has that end-of-the-game feeling.
“He’s been really good (lately) and he’s been really valuable.”
Axford’s lack of command — and the emergence of right-hander Cody Allen — led to Francona removing Axford from his ninth-inning role. Allen has held the job by converting 14 of his 15 save opportunities, including 13 straight.
Axford, who is 10-for-13 in save opportunities, got his first save Monday since May 3.
Michael Bourn (left hamstring strain) began a minor league rehab assignment at Double-A Akron, playing five innings in center field and going 0-3 with a strikeout.
Bourn, who has been sidelined since July 6, is scheduled to play seven innings tonight, followed by a day off. He will resume the rehab assignment with consecutive seven-inning appearances, followed by a day off and back-to-back nine-inning appearances.
On that schedule, Bourn could be activated for the series opener against Baltimore on Aug. 15.
Francona said Nick Swisher (right wrist strain) is “vastly” improved, but the designated hitter did not start Tuesday and probably won’t today or Thursday when the Ohio Cup series shifts to Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park under National League rules.
Swisher will most likely play a pinch-hitting role in the two-game series against the Reds, returning to the lineup for the series opener Friday against New York at Yankee Stadium.
Outfielder Nyjer Morgan (right knee injury) was activated from the 60-day disabled list and released. Francona said it was a mutual parting of ways, with Morgan not expected to play the rest of the season.
Morgan, who sustained the injury May 14 on a play in the outfield in Toronto, filled in admirably for a sidelined Bourn to start the year, batting .341 (14-for-41) with a homer, six RBIs, eight runs and a .429 on-base percentage in 15 games.
“It really helped us,” Francona said. “He gave us a spark, especially at the beginning of the season when he was playing center field and leading off. He was getting on base a ton. It was unfortunate for him that it happened because I think he felt like he had a lot to prove. He came back and was proving it.”
Morgan, 34, played in Japan last year, signing a minor league contract with Cleveland this offseason.
- Strongsville native and Kent State product Anthony Gallas entered Tuesday leading Cleveland’s minor league system with 19 home runs in 107 games for Akron and High Class A Carolina. Gallas, a non-drafted free-agent acquisition in 2010, was tied for second with 64 RBIs.
- Dominican right-hander Gabriel Arias was tops among minor league pitchers with 12 wins (four losses) in 21 games (20 starts) for Triple-A Columbus and Akron. Arias, a non-drafted free-agent acquisition last year, ranked among the top 10 with a 3.55 ERA.
- At 34-21 (.618) through Monday, the Indians owned the third-best home record in the majors. Their plus-31 run differential since the All-Star break was tops in the big leagues through Monday.
- Cleveland entered Tuesday tied with Houston for the most homers (36) in the majors since July 1.