Newcomer ‘Nori’ Aoki sparks atop Giants lineup

There’s a new spark atop the San Francisco Giants lineup. Through the Giants’ first nine games, Norichika “Nori” Aoki, the team’s newly-acquired outfielder, is leading the squad with a .405 batting average while starting every game as the team’s leadoff hitter.

In the Giants home opener on April 13 at AT&T Park, the 33-year-old veteran went 2-for-4 with a stolen base, and reached base three times. Although Aoki had a relatively good day, no one else in the Giants lineup had more than two hits in a 2-0 loss to the Colorado Rockies.

The game was preceded by a ceremony that raised the franchise’s third World Series championship banner in five years. Aoki was a member of the Kansas City Royals team that lost to the Giants in the 2014 World Series.

During the Jan. 20 press conference introducing him as a new Giant, Aoki said that he signed with the Giants because the team competed for the championship every year and he wanted to be a part of it.

The first nine games of the season indicate that if the Giants are going to contend for a championship this season, Aoki will be a major contributor.

Through April 14, Aoki is riding a career-high 17-game hitting streak, dating back to the 2014 regular season. He also leads the team with a .488 on-base percentage and is making a strong case to permanently establish himself as the Giants leadoff hitter.

The Giants have sustained injuries to key players in their starting lineup, including popular outfielder Hunter Pence who broke his arm during spring training. After the April 13 loss, Giants manager Bruce Bochy was asked how Pence’s return from injury would affect Aoki’s position in the lineup. He replied, “He’s (Aoki’s) swinging a great bat. He could help us in a lot of ways, and he could still help us batting in the sixth or seven hole.”

After talking about Aoki’s versatility in the lineup, Bochy went on to say, “But even when Hunter gets back, I have no plans to move him (Aoki). He’s doing a great job at the top of our lineup.”

Aoki debuted in the Major Leagues in 2012 with the Milwaukee Brewers, batting .288 while slugging 10 home runs and stealing 30 bases. His season earned him a fifth place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2012.

Aoki debuted in professional baseball with the Yakult Swallows of the Nippon Professional Baseball League in 2004. He played with the Swallows for eight seasons before being acquired by the Brewers in December 2011. Aoki played for one more season with Milwaukee before being traded to the Royals for the 2014 season.

The Giants acquired Aoki as a free agent this past offseason on a one-year $4.7 million contract with a team option for 2016.

Aoki is the fifth Japan-born player to wear a Giants uniform, following left-handed pitcher Masanori Murakami (1964-65), outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo (2002), right-handed pitcher Keiichi Yabu (2008) and infielder/outfielder Kensuke Tanaka (2013).

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