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.

Giants place Hunter Pence on 10-day disabled list with right thumb sprain

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The Giants placed outfielder Hunter Pence on the 10-day disabled list with a right thumb sprain, per an official announcement on Friday. Pence initially sustained the injury during the club’s home opener on April 3, when he dove to intercept a line drive double from Robinson Cano and jammed his thumb. Weeks of playing through the pain hasn’t worked, so he’ll take a breather while the Giants give outfielder Mac Williamson a chance to start in left after getting called up from Triple-A Fresno.

Pence, 35, wouldn’t pin his recent struggles on his injury, but it’s clear that he’s having difficulty finding his footing this year. He slashed a meager .172/.197/.190 through 61 plate appearances in 2018, collecting just one extra-base hit and two walks during the Giants’ dismal 7-11 stretch. While it’s far too early in the season to make any final judgments, it doesn’t look like the veteran outfielder will be replicating the .275+ average, 4.0+ fWAR totals of years past (at least, not anytime soon).

Williamson, meanwhile, has gotten off to a hot start in Triple-A. Prior to his call-up this weekend, the 27-year-old batted an incredible .487/.600/1.026 with six home runs and a 1.626 OPS through his first 50 PA. A hot Triple-A bat doesn’t always survive the transition to the majors, but the Giants will use all the help they can get — especially as they take on the AL West-leading Angels this weekend.