Before we had the arrival of Norichika Aoki, we had the dismissal of Norichika Aoki.
I think, by this point, even the least stat-inclined baseball fan understands not to be seduced nor repelled by spring training numbers. For every Casey McGehee, there’s a Chris Duffy and a Brad Nelson and an Erick Almonte and a Joe Dillon and you get the point.
Aoki actually finished the spring season with an .801 OPS, but first impressions die hard, and Aoki carried just a .466 mark through his first two weeks (13 games) as a Brewer, even if they were games that don’t count. Aoki’s quality as a complete unknown didn’t help things. The easiest comparable was the last Japanese import hitter, Tsuyoshi Nishioka — the very same who hit .226/.278/.249 for the Twins in 2011.
Some didn’t dismiss on stats but instead chose to dismiss on aesthetics. An American player who swung and missed at pitches as Aoki did in spring training — and still does — would find himself laughed out of pickup games, much less the major leagues.
Things picked up as spring training went on. Sure, he hit a home run off Clayton Kershaw. Sure, he knocked four triples in 67 at-bats. But he looks funny, short and scrunched up in that stance with that patented coily Japanese swing.
So he was dismissed, an afterthought through much of April and May.
On June 7th, Aoki was making his 12th start in 15 games. The gears were turning, but it still wasn’t clear we were looking at Starting Right Fielder Norichika Aoki. Nyjer Morgan was starting to heat up himself; Travis Ishikawa’s return from the disabled list threatened to move Corey Hart back to right field, and three of those starts were the direct result of nicks and bruises suffered by Ryan Braun.
But the momentum was building. Aoki was coming off a 3-for-4 game with two doubles against the Cubs the day before; as Brian Anderson said, he earned his name at the top of the lineup card.
I was already on board, but it’s easy to get on board with anything that seems like a bright spot on a 25-31 club.
Aoki’s game started simply enough. He caught a line drive right at him in the top of the first; he hit a line drive right to Alfonso Soriano in the bottom of the first. There was no reason to believe he would be the central figure for the Brewers in this game. It would probably be Ryan Braun or Aramis Ramirez if they won. The pessimist (realist?) would have put his or her money on Randy Wolf.
But it’s June baseball, and unlike October baseball, June baseball isn’t defined by the unending search for the compelling narrative. No, as Brian Anderson said in the second inning, June 7th was “a beach ball kind of day:”
The Brewers were no-hit through three innings. The fourth inning is far too early to worry about no-hitters, but if any Cubs pitcher in 2011 were capable of the feat, it would be Matt Garza. He was fantastic the whole way on June 7th, showing control of a mid-90s fastball and combining it with a biting mid-70s 12-6 curveball. Ben Sheets-esque, almost.
Aoki led off the fourth against Garza. He showed bunt, a curveball missed down. Garza painted the outside corner with a 95 MPH fastball to even the count. He tried to come inside with the next pitch, but a 93 MPH fastball leaked over the plate just a bit, and Aoki put the Brewers first hit into the Miller Lite BeerpenTM.
Watching Aoki’s highlight videos after news broke of the Brewers winning his posting bid, the thought was he would be a high-average, low-power slap-hitter. The video were full of Ichiro-like slapped doubles into the left-center gap, less so of pulled home runs.
And so, as Bill Schroeder pointed out, it was assumed he would be vulnerable to the inside pitch. Even if the pitch leaked over the middle a bit, the idea was the damage wouldn’t be too bad — pull power is not what you think when you see any 5-foot-10, 185 pound hitter, and it isn’t what you think of with Norichika Aoki.
But he was slowly but surely showing an ability to handle the inside pitch before Garza’s mistake. Slap hits were there — his first home run, an inside-the-park job against Colorado, qualified as such — but the power otherwise came on pulled doubles and triples into the right field gap and corner. Against Garza, Aoki finally found some elevation to go with the pop.
Aoki had the chance to stretch Milwaukee’s lead in the fifth, facing Garza for a third time with two outs and two on. He did not have his best at-bat, falling behind 0-2 after bunting through a pitch and eventually grounding out on a pitch well out of the zone on a 1-2 count.
This was not a game flush with ,major events. Randy Wolf and Matt Garza both pitched very well, much better than either did for most of the season. Each team tacked on in the middle innings — George Kottaras had an RBI single in the sixth, the Cubs got the run back with a Koyie Hill double in the seventh.
Things happened in the eighth. With two outs, Alfonso Soriano found his way on and Bryan LaHair gave the Cubs a lead with a two-run home run crushed into Tundra Territory.
Aoki led off the bottom half of the frame for the Brewers with a hit more like what we imagined when he came over — a little chopped grounder up the middle hit just too slowly for Darwin Barney to nab him at first base. With two outs, Hart doubled him in, setting up a tie game in the ninth.
Perhaps the biggest difference between baseball and most other team sports is the lack of control offensive players have on the game. In crunch time, the Bulls could just give Michael Jordan the ball. The snap always just goes to Aaron Rodgers. Leo Messi will find the ball if his team is down in stoppage time. Ryan Braun stands in the on-deck circle as Nyjer Morgan hits with the game on the line.
Think of all the things that have to happen to even set up a walk-off opportunity. This out has to be made here, this ball has to slip just fair, that pitcher has to be pulled to set up such and such matchup. No double switches. Et cetera.
Aoki led off the 10th with the opportunity to win the game. Much of that opportunity was in fact created himself — he was, after all, 2-for-3 with the home run and two of the three Brewers runs scored. But the entirety of the situation required a brilliant start by Randy Wolf and a similar effort from Matt Garza, a pair of bullpen meltdowns, a Rickie Weeks strikeout with the go-ahead run on second in the eighth, scoreless ninth innings from both John Axford and Manny Corpas — Edwin Maysonet hit one to the warning track — and a scoreless 10th in Axford’s second inning of work (courtesy a Carlos Gomez catch at the wall off an Adrian Cardenas fly ball).
Things have to line up just right, is my point.
It is at the same time one of the most maddening and most beautiful things about baseball. Teams don’t get to rely on their best players. There is no “hero ball” domination. Sometimes they have to rely on their worst, or their average. Whoever’s turn it is has to produce, simple as that.
Norichika Aoki showed bunt on the first pitch he saw from Casey Coleman in the bototm of the 10th. Coleman fell behind 2-0, and it seemed clear Aoki’s first priority was to reach base. Sure, he homered earlier, but he wouldn’t be one to swing for the fences, right?
On 2-0, Coleman threw nearly the exact same pitch Garza threw Aoki six innings, just two miles per hour slower. Aoki turned on it again, and again its destination was the Beerpen in right field. Game over!
So much of sports is necessarily defined by failure — there’s a loser to every winner; there’s 29 losers to every World Champion.
For Aoki on June 7th, it was pure joy. The Japanese rookie, hitting his first major league home run and his first walk off on the same day? Imagine the work he put in to lead to that moment. Imagine the difficulty in coming over to the United States, to working through a month of spring training just to spend most of his first month in MLB on the bench. Imagine the pressure those few opportunities he received.
The joy on Aoki’s face was all in the moment, to be sure. A 3-for-5 day. Two home runs. The walkoff. Most MLB players will never play as great a game.
But there was more for a player like Aoki, battling all season just for playing time: proof that he belongs in the major league; earning the respect of the players both in your clubhouse and in the opposing dugouts.
If there was any doubt heading into the game that Aoki would eventually win the right fielder job — I would argue it was certainly trending that way, at the least — this sealed all doubt. It was Starting Right Fielder Norichika Aoki for the rest of the season; he started all but eight games in right field from June 8th on.
More and more bright spots surfaced as the season went on and the Brewers fought their way over .500, but for me, Aoki’s brilliant rookie year stands at the top. And his game on June 7th was, if not the best played game of the Brewers season, the most memorable and most enjoyable of all 162.