PHOENIX -- Norichika Aoki, a three-time Japanese batting champ beginning his first stint in the United States, hasn't hit quite as well as the Brewers would like early on this spring. But there's something else he hasn't done much of: strike out.
Aoki went down swinging for his first Cactus League strikeout on Wednesday against the Cubs. He's gone 5-for-28 (.179) this spring, with three runs and two RBIs heading into Thursday.
"I was surprised," manager Ron Roenicke said of Aoki's first strikeout. "He swung through a pitch yesterday. He doesn't swing through many pitches. It's usually fouled or put in play. That's good. I know he's not getting hits, but it's good when I see that he's gonna be a tough out."
Roenicke said he knows Aoki is not where he'd like to be, either, but pointed to the cases of other international players who have struggled out of the gate. He referenced Hideki Matsui as an example of another Japanese player who had a tough time acclimating to the culture and the game.
"I know he's not happy with not being a little more locked in offensively," Roenicke said. "But with everything -- we talk about the new culture, the people, the teammates -- those are tough things, so I'm not surprised it's taking him a little while."
Veras shaping up as seventh-inning man
PHOENIX -- Manager Ron Roenicke says newly-acquired reliever Jose Veras is leaving little doubt that he can be a reliable seventh-inning guy for the Brewers this season.
If Milwaukee can get a steady contribution from Veras, it would give Roenicke some easy decisions to make at the tail end of close games, with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford holding down the eighth and ninth innings, respectively.
Veras, who was acquired from Pittsburgh on Dec. 12 in a trade for Casey McGehee, has made four Cactus League appearances this spring -- including a perfect inning on Wednesday against the Cubs.
"His breaking ball is really scary for a right-hander," Roenicke said. "It looks like it's a fastball coming right at him, and has a nice break on it."
Veras has scattered two hits and one unearned run over four innings of work, striking out three. He appeared in 79 games for the Pirates last season, posting a 3.80 ERA while striking out 79 hitters in 71 innings. Opposing hitters are batting .133 against him this spring heading into play on Thursday, which is something Roenicke believes the right-hander can keep up as long as he keeps his breaking pitches down in the zone.
"They're gonna be in trouble [when he keeps the ball down]," Roenicke said. "I know command has been an issue just looking at his totals in the past. But when he throws strikes and puts the ball over the plate, you look at the batting average against and it's just outstanding."
Crew's starters putting up stellar spring stats
PHOENIX -- The Brewers' starting pitchers may not pay close attention to their numbers during Spring Training, but it's hard not to notice them.
After Thursday's Cactus League tilt against the Padres, Milwaukee's projected starters -- Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Chris Narveson and Randy Wolf -- have combined to post a 1.18 ERA.
"The fact that we're throwing strikes, we're gonna have better results," Wolf said. "That's the biggest thing. If we go out there, throw strikes, we're aggressive, we'll have good results."
Right-hander Shaun Marcum, who has been set back by shoulder inflammation but still could start on Opening Day as expected, has not yet thrown this spring. If you add Marco Estrada into the mix (six scoreless innings), the group's ERA drops even further, to 0.99. In all, it's four earned runs in 36 1/3 innings of work. Two of those came in Wolf's start on Wednesday against the Cubs.
"It's a good thing to be able to go out and put zeroes up," Narveson said after his outing on Thursday, in which he did not allow a run in 3 2/3 innings. "That's your goal. I think you're focused more on executing your pitches and, like today, in a couple situations with the first guy in, trying to keep him from scoring. That's something you're able to work on that you can't really simulate other times. It was good work and, obviously, the scoreless streak is nice."
The Brewers, who are fortunate to return the same group of starting pitchers from last year, can also expect Jonathan Lucroy to spend his second full year as the primary backstop and have made great strides under pitching coach Rick Kranitz. Wolf said Kranitz spent much of last season getting to know the pitchers, and can now enter this spring head-on.
"His second time around, knowing us and knowing what we need to prepare, in Spring Training, he can nip things in the bud so much quicker," Wolf said.
Brewers make first round of camp cuts
PHOENIX -- The Brewers made their first cuts of the spring on Thursday, sending three players down to Minor League camp and optioning two to Double-A Huntsville.
Pitchers Jed Bradley and Taylor Jungmann -- first-round picks in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft -- have been sent to Minor League camp, along with catcher Anderson De La Rosa. Outfielder Brock Kjeldgaard and right-hander Cody Scarpetta were optioned to Huntsville.
Jungmann -- a 2011 Golden Spikes finalist out of the University of Texas -- had a 13.50 ERA in two appearances (2 2/3 innings), while Bradley also saw just two complete innings of work (9.00 ERA).
"We just didn't have the innings to try to get them," manager Ron Roenicke said. "They need to get ready."
In Kjeldgaard's first big league camp, he went 0-for-15 with nine strikeouts.
"He's a big guy that relies on good timing," Roenicke said. "When he got hot last year, he really got hot. He did OK. He worked hard, he's a good athlete and hasn't really had the opportunity to show where he's gonna be. In a couple years, it'll be a lot more interesting to see where he is."
Scarpetta, a right-handed starter, threw just one shutout inning.
"He's a starter, so how that plays in the bullpen would have been a long shot -- just because he hasn't been in the bullpen," Roenicke said.
Marcum will throw another bullpen session on Thursday, with the hope of still being ready for the Opening Day rotation. He has not thrown in a game yet this spring.
"He's doing good," Roenicke said. "Since he's started throwing again, everything's on track. And hopefully, it'll stay on track and we'll see when we get to the end of this thing where we are."
Roenicke had an annual umpires meeting on Thursday morning, and said the most prevalent topic for this season was the playoff expansion.
"I'm fine with it," Roenicke said of the new system. "I just don't like how we go about just having one game. I like it because I think it will generate more interest at the end of the season. But I don't like that a team could win 95 and win a Wild Card and a team could win 85 and win a Wild Card, and go into a one-game playoff. And [depending] on where they are in the rotation, the team that wins 95 could have their No. 5 guy going against the other team's No. 1. But I don't know how else to do it. ... I do like it. I just don't know how to go about it the right way."