Aoki adjusts, gives Brewers a needed boost

MILWAUKEE — Norichika Aoki could feel his muscles aching, day after day, as the middle of June wore on during his rookie season in America. He was tired — there was no disputing that — but for the first time in his career, he didn’t know what to do about it.

Aoki had been one of the most consistent players in Japan before signing with the Milwaukee Brewers in the offseason. A three-time batting champion in his native country, Aoki is one of four players in Japanese baseball history to amass more than 200 hits in a season, an exclusive club that includes Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki.

Aoki was a model of consistency in Japan. And since becoming an everyday right fielder in the Brewers’ lineup in May, Aoki looked as if he would continue to play at that level — even though many have struggled with making the jump to the American game. But as Milwaukee prepared to face the Toronto Blue Jays on June 20 at Miller Park, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke started to notice a change in Aoki.

“I think he’s run out of gas a little bit,” Roenicke said at the time. “He’s playing a lot. All of a sudden, I’m seeing some funny swings from him.”

Roenicke couldn’t help but notice something different in Aoki’s preparation ever since he came to Milwaukee, something that might explain the extra aches and pains, the newfound inconsistencies in Aoki’s game.

Aoki was spending hours in batting practice before games, much longer than any of his teammates. He arrived at the clubhouse early to get in extra work before almost every game. He would take as many as 1,000 swings per day, more than any other player on the team by far.

This was part of a cultural transition that neither Aoki nor Roenicke had expected or fully understood. The first Brewers player signed from Japan via the posting process, Aoki touched off an adjustment for both sides upon his January addition. American baseball includes significantly more games, more batting, more time in the field than Japanese professional leagues. Something would have to change, or Aoki would continue to wear down.

Still, Roenicke feared what would happen if he tried to force that adjustment too abruptly. Would telling Aoki to cut his practice swings in half end his June slump or simply hurt his development?

“If I told him to do nothing, mentally, it may hurt him more than just letting him get a little worn down,” Roenicke said then. “The longer Japanese players are here, the longer they see what works and what doesn’t. It’s hard when you first come over and you’re used to doing that much work.”

In fact, not many Japanese players fare as well as Aoki has in his first few months in America. Though Ichiro had been the gold standard of Japanese players, experiencing unprecedented success in the major leagues, he’s been more the exception than the rule since he debuted for Seattle in 2001.

The Minnesota Twins signed shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka — an Aoki teammate on the Japanese team in the 2006 World Baseball Classic — before the 2011 season, with hopes he could become their shortstop of the future. But he was a disappointment in his rookie season, hitting just .226 in 68 games with 12 errors after coming back from an early season injury.

Minnesota still has high hopes for Nishioka, But as the Japanese shortstop now toils at Triple-A Rochester, it begs the question whether Nishioka will amount to much in the majors.

Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ vice president of player personnel, remains confident Nishioka will become what the team expected when it signed him for $9 million over three years. But Radcliff admits the adjustment from Japanese baseball to American baseball is severe.

“There are major adjustments,” Radcliff said. “When we were going through that process of evaluating him and going through the process of contemplating signing him and bringing him over, we came up with over 100 different things he’ll have to address, adjust or change for Major League Baseball versus Japanese baseball. As small as the size of the ball difference to the majority of turf play and the type of pitching, the stadiums they play in. There’s obvious cultural things, language. We came up with over 100 different things.”

Radcliff isn’t surprised Nishioka’s transition has been tough.

“It’s a major transition and adjustment,” Radcliff said. “We knew that. He knew that. All of them who try to make the jump from that league realize that, understand that. . . . It wasn’t a surprise. It just takes some time. Each individual makes those adjustments and addresses all those things in their own manner.”

But even as his body began to wear down, Aoki’s transition to the major leagues has, by all accounts, gone much smoother than Nishioka’s. After Roenicke suggested Aoki might be working too hard, the player recognized the problem and tried his best to rectify it.

“I would say I was getting worn down a little bit,” Aoki said through his translator. “I was practicing too much, working out too much. That wearing down was probably the result of that. . . .  I definitely had to (change). It’s something that I experienced feeling my body getting tired. I’ve tried to do less with my routine and go from there.”

To keep from overworking, Aoki said he has tried to arrive at the clubhouse an hour later than he used to. He knows if he came at the same time, he’d end up working out to pass the time. That transition, however slight, has already produced serious results.

Now firmly entrenched as the Brewers’ leadoff man after getting sporadic playing time in the season’s first six weeks, Aoki carried a 15-game hitting streak into the All-Star break. Hitting .301 with five home runs and 11 stolen bases, he has been one of the bright spots in an otherwise tough season for the Brewers (40-45), who trail the National League Central-leading Pittsburgh Pirates by eight games at the break.

And if Aoki can keep from wearing down, there’s no telling how much of a difference the former Japanese batting champ can make in a Brewers lineup that desperately needs a second-half spark.

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