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Japan All-Stars Series: Astros well-represented in wild exhibition game

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With the Houston Astros being one of just two teams sending four players to Japan for the rebirth of the special series, it should come as little surprise that the 'Stros had their fingerprints all over the first game.

Jose Altuve, the Astros' All-Star...shortstop?
Jose Altuve, the Astros' All-Star...shortstop?
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

With the MLB club taking an 8-1 advantage into the bottom of the seventh, the game appeared over, until Japan rallied for five runs in that inning, and scored another in eighth inning to close the gap to one, thanks to Jose Altuve whiffing on a ball hit to him at shortstop.

Wait, what? Maybe I should start from the beginning.

Robinson Cano got starting honors over Altuve at second base, which makes sense considering that Altuve beat him out in Silver Slugger voting and the media's biased love for the former Yankee just how stinkin' fabulous he is at everything, I guess. And with Cano having collected two base hits by the fifth inning already, manager John Farrell seemed reluctant to remove him from the game and replace him with Altuve, who had just pinch-run for Chris Carter at second, after Carter was hit by a pitch and moved to second on Dexter Fowler's single (see? Well-represented). Fowler also had a home run to center field in the seventh inning, giving the MLB All-Stars that 8-1 led that would eventual end up being the deciding run in the game.

But you don't just want to waste Altuve's bat as a pinch-runner, right?  Clearly there was only one sane solution; play Jose Altuve at shortstop for the rest of the game and play Rays super-utility player Ben Zobrist at second base.

For reference, Jose Altuve has not played shortstop in his professional career, which dates back to 2007. At all. Not for a single inning. Not for a single plate appearance. Ben Zobrist on the other hand has 229 major league games at shortstop. It didn't look like it would matter much until that big rally, but then with the game on the line, Altuve out of position and playing on an all-dirt infield at sacred Koshien stadium, well, he just didn't get his glove down enough on an in-between hop.

Defense: Jose Altuve Short Japan

Fortunately Jose Veras (I swear there were non-Astros involved in this game) came in when things got hairy, because, as you all well know, nothing says "shutdown inning" like Jose Veras, am I right? Two-thirds of an inning, two walks and a hit (and what seemed like roughly 45 minutes) later, and Japan has the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, down by one, in a game with no extra innings allowed.

Farrell yanked Veras for a new pitcher, who only managed to get out of it on account of Japan's runner on third deciding not to test the fearsome throwing arm of Fowler more than halfway back towards the warning track (maybe Japan isn't big on video scouting?). And so ended a game, full of jet-lagged hitters who had never faced any of the sixteen used pitchers before, in which 15 total runs crossed the plate after nearly four hours. As All-Star/Exhibition/Spring Training/Winter/Barnstorming games (or whatever the heck this thing one) go, that was somehow even more bizarre than expected.

The important thing to note is that the Japanese team was comprised of the best players from just two teams (Hanshin and Yomiuri). The real series starts tonight (or...tomorrow morning, I guess), and totally-definite-future-Astro Kenta Maeda is scheduled to do the pitching, backed by a team of the best Japanese player from all NPB. It will be interesting to see if the, frankly underwhelming, MLB pitching staff can put up a good fight.

Also of note is that we're likely to see plenty of Fowler, if not the other Astros; he and Yasiel Puig are the only two guys on the roster who are real, full-time outfielders. Heck, Chris Carter got the start in left field in this game. You can also expect Farrell to continue to find ways to work both Cano and Altuve into things; certainly he doesn't want to have to go without either of those bats in the lineup.

Fun - Balloons Japan