ARLINGTON -- John Axford's goal remains to eventually reclaim the closer's job with the Indians that he lost last month due to persistent command troubles. For now, the reliever is pleased with his recent showings and happy to be trusted with higher-leverage situations again.
"Lately it's been a lot better," Axford said. "I've been feeling a lot better and it's been showing."
Since being stripped of the closing duties on May 10, Axford has gone to work on fine-tuning his mechanics with the goal of reducing an early-season walk rate that skyrocketed above his career norm. During side days and in outings, the right-hander has focused on regaining a comfort with the starting point of his delivery.
Indians bullpen coach Kevin Cash has been happy with the results both in games and behind the scenes.
"He's been kind of tinkering with his delivery," Cash said. "Ax, from what he says, he finds a lot of value in how he comes set. He needs that to be good for him -- his initial setup. If everything is in line, then it's much easier for the delivery to work. He's been really good."
Entering Sunday, Axford had a 0.96 ERA (one earned run in 9 1/3 innings) in 11 appearances since being removed from the ninth-inning role. In that span, the right-hander has 11 strikeouts, four walks and a 1.10 WHIP, while limiting batters to a .182 average.
In the 17 games prior to that stretch, Axford had a 4.91 ERA, 1.77 WHIP and nearly as many walks (13) as strikeouts (15) in 14 2/3 innings. During that earlier period, he averaged 6.8 pitches per out, compared to 5.4 pitches per out since losing the closing job.
Axford hopes his progress will lead him back into his former role with the Indians.
"That's something I definitely want to do," Axford said. "As we talked early in the season, coming to a team that was in the playoffs and a team that was close to home and had this coaching staff and chemistry and clubhouse, that's something I wanted.
"But I also wanted the closer's role, especially after last year. With it falling away after a month, I feel like I'm getting myself back into that spot and working my way back in."
Santana feeling more comfortable at the plate
ARLINGTON -- Carlos Santana is not only feeling better physically, the Indians third baseman and backup catcher is happy with how he has felt in the batter's box since coming off the seven-day concussion list.
Maybe the time off helped Santana put his early-season slump behind him.
"Maybe, maybe not," said Santana, who then smirked. "But I don't recommend any player have a concussion."
On Friday and Saturday -- Santana's first two games back in the lineup -- he reached base in six of eight plate appearances, collecting three hits and drawing three walks. In Saturday's 8-3 win against the Rangers, Santana launched a two-run home run in the seventh inning to help Cleveland pull away for the win.
Through 52 games this season, Santana has hit only .171, but the Indians have worked with him on focusing on more than just batting average.
"All the time," manager Terry Francona said. "That's a hard thing to do, because nobody wants to look up there and see that. It beats you up a little bit. I think maybe the week away sometimes can help that a little bit, calm you down and almost give you another start. Even though the numbers are the same, it gives you a chance to recharge."
Entering Sunday's game, Santana had a .308/.514/.615 slash line in his past eight games and had an .812 OPS (.412 on-base percentage and .400 slugging percentage) in his past 85 plate appearances, dating back to when he snapped out of an 0-for-21 slump on May 8.
"That's why I really wasn't in a rush to lower him in the order," said Francona, referring to Santana's on-base production. "He was taking his walks and you still have to pitch to him. You can penalize a guy for batting average or you can realize that a guy got off to a slow start and actually look at what he's doing, and that's probably more of what he is."
Santana is hoping his recent success translates into a strong turnaround.
"I've had a slow start, but it's a long season," Santana said. "For me, every day is a new start. It's one day at a time. I don't know the future. I only think day to day, game to game, AB to AB. Everything, every situation, where I can, I try to be the best."
McAllister might rejoin Tribe following rehab start
ARLINGTON -- Sidelined starter Zach McAllister is scheduled to make one more Minor League rehab start before potentially rejoining the Indians' rotation.
On Sunday, Cleveland manager Terry Francona indicated that McAllister -- on the 15-day disabled list due to a lower back strain -- is slated to pitch for Triple-A Columbus on Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C. If everything goes according to plan, McAllister would then meet up with the Indians on Thursday, when the team opens a four-game series in Boston.
"We'll see how he's feeling and how he's doing, for sure," Francona said on Sunday. "We spent some time this morning talking to him just about going down to this game and kind of using it like a competitive Major League game."
McAllister made his first Minor League rehab start with Class A Lake County this past Thursday, allowing three runs on nine hits in 4 1/3 innings. The Indians wanted to have him face higher-level hitters prior to potentially being slotted back into the Major League rotation.
"I think he felt really good about himself physically and everything, so that was good," Francona said. "At Lake County, that's OK. But as you get geared up to get back up here, it's nice to see a little better competition."
On the season, McAllister has gone 3-4 with a 5.89 ERA through 10 starts for the Indians, who saw the right-hander go 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA in 24 starts in 2013. After opening this season 3-0 with a 2.28 ERA through four starts, during which he held opponents to a .655 OPS in 23 2/3 innings, McAllister went 0-4 with a 9.51 ERA in the six starts (.919 opponents' OPS in 23 2/3 innings) leading up to the DL stint.
When McAllister is cleared to be activated by the Tribe, lefty T.J. House might be the odd-man out in the rotation. House, who is scheduled to start against the Rangers on Monday, has posted a 3.79 ERA in four appearances (three starts) this season for Cleveland.
"Regardless of what happens, T.J. has pitched himself into what we're doing," Francona said. "I think T.J. is a pretty mature kid and he listens when you talk. If he stays here, we view him as helping us. If he has to go back to Triple-A, I think he's smart enough to know that he still has some development. He also knows what it takes to help here, which I think can be huge."
Quote to note
"It's great when you can run guys out there and they can do the things they've done. At the same time, it's frustrating on my side knowing that, if I was where I needed to be during those games, I would be out there at those points, too, helping save some of those guys from getting out there too many times."
-- Axford, on other relievers handling the ninth inning
• Francona said Sunday that the plan remains the same for first baseman Nick Swisher, who is on the 15-day disabled list with a left knee injury. Swisher is scheduled to do a Minors rehab assignment with Double-A Akron on Tuesday (five innings) and Wednesday (nine innings) before potentially rejoining Cleveland in Boston on Thursday.
"We visited with him today for a while, because he's all revved up about coming back," Francona said on Sunday. "He feels good, which is good, but we talked to him about not having an artificial clock. Let's get him back so he can be the player who impacts the game the way he needs to."
• Cleveland optioned first-base prospect Jesus Aguilar back to Columbus on Friday. In two stints with the big league club, the 23-year-old hit just .188 (3-for-16). Francona believes that Aguilar, who is one of Cleveland top power-hitting prospects, was pressing in an effort to impress the big league staff.
"I still think he's having a hard time relaxing," Francona said. "I don't think that a handful of games can define his career whether he hit .400 or no-hundred. I do think he's a big strong right-hand hitter that has power and he can play first base pretty well. That combination, you don't see a lot of. So, if it takes patience with him, we're going to be patient. The pay off could be huge."
• Indians backup catcher George Kottaras defeated Texas' Robbie Ross Jr. in a cow-milking competition prior to Saturday's game. Kottaras also beat Ross in the same promotional event last season, when the catcher was with Kansas City. On Sunday, Kottaras had his second silver bucket trophy sitting in his locker. At one point during the contest, Ross' cow kicked over his pail.
"It hit my bucket, too, but I grabbed it and had to hold it with one hand," Kottaras said. "They were moving left and right. I was milking one [udder] and it was missing the bin. It was going all over. It was a good time. It's all in fun."