MILWAUKEE -- Wednesday's Pirates-Brewers game offered a fascinating matchup: Major League Baseball's best left-handed pitcher against left-handed batters (Pittsburgh starter Francisco Liriano ) against MLB's best left-handed batter against left-handed pitchers (Milwaukee leadoff man Norichika Aoki ).
For both players, the numbers are impressive. Liriano entered Wednesday holding left-handed batters to a .336 OPS, the best mark in baseball history, as noted by the website Grantland.com (minimum 100 at-bats). Aoki entered Wednesday batting .340 against left-handers, tops among left-handed hitters in the Majors this season, with a .388 on-base percentage against left-handers that trailed only Twins catcher Joe Mauer's .394.
Aoki's success against southpaws is a learned skill.
"I think it was probably my first year playing professional ball," Aoki said through translator Kosuke Inaji. "Since I was a lefty, I figured I have to hit lefties as well to get playing time. So I thought of an approach, and that's where it came from."
Aoki, a three-time batting champion in Japan, declined to share any of his secrets, saying, "I don't want to say. There's different stuff that I think about when I go up to bat against a righty vs. a lefty."
Aoki was the only left-handed batter in the Brewers' starting lineup Wednesday.
He has not enjoyed the same success against right-handed pitchers, batting .263 to lower his overall average entering Wednesday to .287, with a .352 on-base percentage. His numbers are remarkably similar to last season, when Aoki went .288/.355/.433, with 81 runs scored and 30 stolen bases to finish fifth in National League Rookie of the Year Award balloting.
But asked about his season as a whole on Wednesday, Aoki said. "Looking at my numbers, I feel good, but I feel like I can do more."
Aoki's contract includes a $1.5 million club option for 2014 that the Brewers will almost certainly exercise. They have until five days after the World Series to make it official.
"I haven't heard anything," Aoki said, before adding with a smile, "The contract I'm more worried about right now is the contract for my apartment, for getting it next year. That's dependent on whether the club picks me up."
First base to be one focus for Brewers this offeason
MILWAUKEE -- Juan Francisco is slumping, Corey Hart is headed for free agency, Mat Gamel is rehabbing, and Hunter Morris was left in the Minors.
It appears the Brewers will enter the offseason with no more certainty at first base than when their challenging season began.
"The only way it settles is if you go out and look for and sign a big-time first baseman, and those are costly," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "I looked at [Carlos Pena] a couple of years ago, and he hits .220 with some homers, and he's making $10 million at first base for a year. So, I don't know."
The Brewers could solve the problem by re-signing Hart, but can they count on him to be healthy after undergoing right knee surgery in January and left knee surgery in July? What can they expect from Gamel after two consecutive seasons lost to ACL surgeries? Francisco has tremendous raw power, but can he be consistent enough in the field and at the plate to play every day?
And what to make of Morris? After batting .303 with 28 home runs and 113 RBIs at Double-A Huntsville in 2012, he hit .247 with 24 home runs and 73 RBIs at Triple-A Nashville in 2013. He will have to be added to the 40-man roster this winter, but the Brewers opted not to include the soon-to-be 25-year-old among its September callups.
"We talked about it," Roenicke said. "It just depends on where we thought his development was and whether he's going to be that guy who's going to be there next year."
Asked what he'd been told about Morris' season, Roenicke said the player was, "Getting better defensively. Hit for power. But he's got to be more consistent with what he's doing. He was coming off a great year in Double-A, and Triple-A ball, sometimes it takes a little longer. He hit [.247] … I don't know what that plays out to the big leagues. You don't know."
How the Brewers solve their first base conundrum will determine how much Jonathan Lucroy plays there in 2014. The Brewers' regular catcher has seen occasional time at first this season when backup Martin Maldonado does the catching, a way to keep Lucroy's big bat in the lineup.
Lucroy made his fifth start at first base on Wednesday night.
"Luc has really done a good job at first base. He's surprised me," Roenicke said. "I'm not surprised that he'll catch a ground ball and he'll pick a ball in the dirt, just because he has to do it catching, also. But he looks pretty comfortable out there."
Kintzler not feeling fatigued by workload
MILWAUKEE -- Brewers reliever Brandon Kintzler's next appearance will be his 60th this season, surpassing the personal high he set last year between Triple-A Nashville and the big leagues. With five more innings, he will set a career high in that category, too.
Yet Kintzler, who has emerged this season as the Brewers' eighth-inning specialist and entered Wednesday with a 2.76 ERA, said he was still feeling strong.
"I've made a lot of appearances, but a lot of them have been low pitch counts, not that stressful," Kintzler said. "I've been recovering fine. … If you want to be a successful seventh- or eighth-inning reliever, these are things you're going to have to do. Say we're in the playoff chase next year, these kinds of things are going to prepare you."
On Wednesday, he was off-limits. Kintzler needed 37 pitches for a stressful inning against the Pirates on Tuesday, his highest pitch count in a single inning this season.
The bullpen has been a strength for the Brewers all season, but lately has become a stress point for manager Ron Roenicke. Losing Francisco Rodriguez in a July trade to Baltimore forced a reorganization of roles, and the options were further limited last week when John Axford was traded to the Cardinals. With Michael Gonzalez slumping, Roenicke had hoped to use Tom Gorzelanny in the seventh inning, but Gorzelanny is now sidelined by a tight shoulder. Burke Badenhop was unavailable earlier this week because of a stiff neck.
Roenicke is searching for reliable options beyond Kintzler and closer Jim Henderson
"Somebody is going to pick it up, because I can't keep running those guys out there all the time," Roenicke said.
• All-Star shortstop Jean Segura was held out of Wednesday's starting lineup because he was sick, Roenicke said. He's expected back on Friday at Wrigley Field.
• Brewers head physician William Raasch examined left-hander Tom Gorzelanny's stiff shoulder on Wednesday and ordered further tests on Thursday morning. Gorzelanny may not travel with the Brewers to Chicago later in the day, Roenicke said.