Norichika Aoki proves to be a big find for the Brewers

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Norichika Aoki’s third big-league homer — coming six innings after his second — was a walkoff blast in the bottom of the 10th inning Thursday, giving the Brewers a 4-3 victory over the Cubs.

Aoki ended up with his second straight three-hit game today, making this something of a coming out party against the Cubs.

Aoki, a three-time batting champ in Japan, received very little interest from anyone other than the Brewers after saying he wanted to jump to MLB last winter. Even the Brewers might have passed if not for the looming threat of Ryan Braun’s pending 50-game suspension. Milwaukee signed the 30-year-old to a two-year, $2.5 million contract that didn’t even promise him a roster spot coming out of spring training.

Aoki went on to make the club, but he still started all of three games in April. More playing time came last month with Carlos Gomez on the DL and Nyjer Morgan struggling, and while Aoki didn’t take advantage at first, he’s been one of the Brewers’ best players the last three weeks. With Corey Hart often at first base as a result of Mat Gamel’s season-ending knee injury, Aoki has stepped in as a right fielder against right-handers and hit .343/.389/.582 in 67 at-bats since May 17.

It’s the power that’s a surprise. Aoki hit as many as 20 homers in a season in Japan, but he was all of the way down to four last year in his final season the Yakult Swallows. Imports with similar power production in Japan have tended to be singles hitters in MLB. Aoki, though, has 13 extra-base hits already in 119 at-bats for the Brewers.

The Brewers signed Aoki with the idea that he’d be their fifth outfielder. Now he may well get a shot to be a full-timer. Both of his homers today came off righties, but he’s actually hitting .341 in 41 at-bats in lefty-lefty matchups. Hart should get used to playing first base going forward.

Jonny Venters is still pitching

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Lefty reliever Jonny Venters was among a handful of players the Rays signed to minor league contracts, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports.

Venters, 32, hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2012 and has logged just 27 2/3 innings in the minors in the meantime due to a continuous battle with his elbow. According to David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Venters has undergone four — four! — Tommy John surgeries.

When he was healthy, Venters was a fearsome late-game option for the Braves. He posted a 1.95 ERA with 93 strikeouts in 83 innings in 2010, and a 1.84 ERA with 96 strikeouts in 88 innings in 2011. His first-half performance in 2011 earned him a spot on the National League All-Star roster.

Venters has spent the last two years in the Rays’ system and he’ll try to make it a third.