MILWAUKEE — Before Thursday afternoon, Norichika Aoki had not hit even one pitch over the fence in a major-league game.
What were the odds he would do it twice in one game?
Aoki became the first Milwaukee player to hit a walk-off home run this season, socking a leadoff blast in the bottom of the 10th inning that capped a two-homer performance and gave the Brewers a 4-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs at Miller Park.
“He’s a guy you don’t expect to do that,” said Corey Hart, whose run-scoring double in the bottom of the eighth inning tied the score. “Obviously, he’s a great hitter. Sometimes, guys have to step up. He has been big for us.
“He’s got it in there. Maybe he’ll become our home-run guy.”
Entering the game, Aoki’s only home run in his first major-league season had been an inside-the-park liner against Colorado on April 20 that got past diving leftfielder Carlos Gonzalez. That changed in the fourth inning Thursday when he sent a 1-1 fastball from Chicago starter Matt Garza into the picnic area in right field to put the Brewers on top, 1-0.
Aoki, who snapped out of a 1-for-22 skid Wednesday night with three hits, including a pair of doubles, stepped to the plate in the 10th to face reliever Casey Coleman and quickly got ahead in the count, 2-0. Coleman came back with a 91-mph fastball that Aoki sent into the right-field bleachers to win the game.
Beyond the traditional mobbing at home plate to celebrate the homer, Aoki got a shaving-cream pie to the face from pitcher Shaun Marcum during a dugout interview, as did interpreter Kosuke Inaji.
“The only home run I’ve had so far was an inside-the-park home run, so I still can’t believe I was able to hit two today,” said Aoki. “I’m really happy it was in an important situation.
“They don’t do shaving cream to the face in Japan, but it’s a good feeling.”
A three-time batting champion in Japan before signing a two-year deal with the Brewers, Aoki is known as more of a contact hitter than a bopper. But manager Ron Roenicke said it didn’t surprise him that the 5-foot-9 outfielder shows some pop.
“If you watch him, he’s got bat speed,” said Roenicke. “When he squares up a ball, it takes off. It’s not soft liners. I could see him doing this.”
With Carlos Gomez spending some time on the DL with a hamstring strain and Nyjer Morgan having trouble getting going at the plate (.228), Aoki slowly has been getting more playing time. On days that Hart moves in to first base, Aoki has been starting in right field.
Asked if he was ready to make Aoki a regular player, Roenicke said, “If we decide to do Corey at first base every day, we could get a lot closer to that. I still like all three guys. Nori is playing better than (the other two) right now. We’ll try to get him out there as much as we can.”
Beyond Aoki’s heroics and two strong innings to close the game by John Axford, the good news for the Brewers was left-hander Randy Wolf’s strong start. Wolf was 0-3 with a 5.45 earned run average in his previous six starts but limited the Cubs to one unearned run over 62/3 innings.
Wolf was in position to pick up the victory when he left the game, but pinch-hitter Bryan LaHair erased the Brewers’ 2-1 lead in the eighth with a two-out, two-run homer off reliever Francisco Rodriguez.
“I’m really happy with the way he threw the ball, and he should be, and he is,” said Roenicke. “He commanded the fastball well, was very aggressive in the strike zone. I thought he really got after it today.
“That’s definitely what he needed to build on and continue with that type of pitching for the rest of the year.”
Had the Brewers lost the game, they would have dropped two of three for the second consecutive series on the home stand, and against a last-place team that hasn’t won a road series all year. After sweeping four games in Los Angeles to conclude their last trip, that would have been an ugly situation for an injury-riddle team trying to climb into contention in the NL Central.
“We need to win series,” said Roenicke. “We need to start winning a lot of them. It was important, but I think it was also important that we played a good game. Just playing the way we should play is going to take us on that road to being consistent for the rest of the season.”
While more two-homer games might be a bit much to ask, Aoki has designs of playing an increased role in the Brewers’ fortunes.
“Just being able to play in more games, I’m definitely getting more comfortable,” said Aoki, who indicated he made an adjustment at the plate to snap out of his recent skid. “I’m getting a good feel for the game. To be able to hit a home run to win a game, it’s a special feeling.