The Angels played an usually high number of spring-training games this year, 34, and young power hitter Jefry Marte started 20 of them. But they did not manage to get him even one inning in left field all spring, after testing him there to poor results last season.
“What he’s lacking now is experience,” manager Mike Scioscia said one month ago.
He gained little since, only manning left field for three innings of a blowout last week before an unexpected start there Wednesday at Minute Maid Park. Predictably, he did not fare well when thrust into the spotlight in the Angels’ 5-1 loss to Houston.
The Astros’ second batter, Josh Reddick, hit a liner near Marte, and he gave late chase and missed it by a few feet. An out turned into a triple, and, soon, a run, when Jose Altuve singled to right field.
It was an all-around unusual outfield configuration. Right fielder Kole Calhoun, hitless in 19 consecutive at-bats, sat out, and new left fielder Cameron Maybin played right field. Maybin could not recall practicing the position until last week, when he played three innings in the same game Marte took over left.
“I might have shagged out there once,” Maybin said.
So, Altuve drove a ball to right. Standing far deeper than Reddick, his Astros counterpart, Maybin broke in, slid, and could not corral it, his first step one beat too late.
“I think I might have jumped one tick too late,” Maybin said. “But what can you do, man? The effort was there, but no catch.”
Altuve then stole second, and took third on a Brian McCann single. With Evan Gattis up, a JC Ramirez slider got away from Martin Maldonado, but the ball boomeranged off of the backstop to Maldonado, who tagged out Altuve.
Making the second start of his career, Ramirez increased his use of breaking balls from last time. By the fourth inning, he was dominating. He wielded a backdoor slider to strike out Altuve looking, then froze McCann with a 97-mph fastball and buried an 89-mph slider to strike out Gattis.
At that point, he’d struck out five consecutive Astros, eight in all, and induced 12 missed swings.
“It felt like if I closed my eyes I could throw the fastball wherever I wanted,” Ramirez said. “And my slider was really good today, hard and sharp.”
That streak ceased in the fifth, when Alex Bregman led off with a double and scored on a Yulieski Gurriel single. Ramirez walked Marwin Gonzalez, turned his back to the plate, and repeatedly hopped on the mound, admonishing himself.
Pitching coach Charles Nagy visited the mound, Blake Parker began to warm in the bullpen and Ramirez snapped his belt while attempting to adjust it.
“Don’t think I’m too fat,” Ramirez said. “I’m not.”
New belt attached, Ramirez induced an inning-ending double play on his third pitch to George Springer. To his surprise, Ramirez returned to the mound for the sixth inning, and Reddick led off with a drive to left field. Marte tracked it back to the short wall but could not glove it and Reddick had a double.
Ramirez retired Altuve, and Scioscia emerged from the Angels dugout, choosing to play the matchups with his relievers.
To end the Angels’ seventh, Maldonado took a called third strike on the outside edge of the zone, one he could not believe. He ripped off his helmet and shouted at plate umpire Mike DiMuro, but was not ejected.
Mike Morin entered for the eighth and served up a two-run home run to Reddick. The lead out of reach, the Angels soon fell to 7-9.
The Angels do not appear to have much room for error, but Wednesday’s lineup indicated they are willing to take risks. Maybin said he was sure he’d get better in right field given time. Speaking in a hushed voice through an interpreter, Marte said he already felt comfortable in left field.
“He’s fine,” Scioscia said. “He’s fine. He’s fine. He’s not going to be Cam. He’s not going to be Ben [Revere]. But it’s a position where, especially tonight when there’s not a lot of room out there in left field, he’ll be fine. We need his bat in the lineup and that’s one way to get it in there.”
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura