Angels champing at bit for Richards' return

Trout, Pujols eager for righty to take hill, which could happen Sunday

Angels champing at bit for Richards' return

HOUSTON -- It was late on a Tuesday night, a day game loomed, the assembled media was out of questions and Mike Scioscia, two hours removed from watching his temporary fifth starter record only eight outs in Arlington, immediately shifted his attention to a rehabbing pitcher in Triple-A.

"We got a line on Garrett yet?" the Angels' manager asked, of nobody in particular.

"Garrett," of course, is Garrett Richards, the 26-year-old right-hander who underwent left knee surgery in late August and made what could've been his final rehab start on Tuesday.

"Oh, 'Bullet,'" Albert Pujols said, smiling, because that's the nickname that gets tossed around the Angels' clubhouse, where Richards' return has been greatly anticipated since the onset of Spring Training.

It's easy to see why.

"There are very few talents in the game that are just kind of undeniable," Angels closer Huston Street said, "and he's one of them."

Richards' rise to prominence and ensuing quest for last year's American League Cy Young Award ended prematurely on Aug. 20, when he ruptured his left patellar tendon while covering first base at Fenway Park. An extensive rehab ensued, and now Richards could return to the rotation as early as Sunday's series finale against the Astros at Minute Maid Park.

As of Thursday afternoon, though, the Angels still hadn't decided the next step.

Richards is confident with his surgically-repaired knee, loves the way the ball feels coming out of his hand and doesn't believe he has anything left to prove in the Minor Leagues. But the Angels were unsure after Richards' recent outing in Fresno, Calif., which saw him continually leave pitches up while surrendering five runs on seven hits and four walks in five innings.

It'd be easy to chalk that up to the high altitudes and unforgiving nature of the Pacific Coast League, but the Angels want to be positive.

"When you have a dynamic arm like Garrett, you don't want to miss any steps," Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "You want him to be right; you want him to be comfortable -- not only physically comfortable, but mentally comfortable."

Richards will meet up with his teammates this weekend in Houston, where the Angels will determine the next step. They could start him Sunday, on the regular four days of rest. Or push him back a day or two, keeping the other starters on schedule and giving Richards more time. Or, least likely, send him back to Triple-A for another rehab start or two.

"The team is playing the long game," Street said. "It's not just this season but the next 15 seasons, hopefully."

Richards and Mike Trout share a house in Newport Beach, Calif., during the season, and for a while now, the Angels' center fielder has been pestering Richards about when he's going to come back.

"I always give him a hard time, but you can't rush things like that," Trout said. "It's a lot of patience, because in his head, he's ready."

Richards pitched in only intrasquad scrimmages and Minor League games during Spring Training, but he dominated, giving up two runs on 12 hits and seven walks and striking out 29 in 24 1/3 innings. The fastball -- the fastest among Major Leagues starters last year -- is still 98 mph with tailing action; the curveball and slider are still filthy.

"He's definitely looked good," Angels catcher Chris Iannetta said. "But obviously, bullpens are different than games, and exhibition games are different than big league games. So, we'll see.

"It's definitely a long road ahead. I don't think it's going to be midseason form first time out, but it's going to be good to have him back."

After back-to-back years of constant shuffling from the rotation to the bullpen to the Minors, Richards finally honed his big stuff in 2014 and emerged as one of the best young pitchers in baseball. He went 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA in 26 starts, while allowing the 12th-lowest opponents' slugging percentage in Major League history.

Now he can change the dynamic of the Angels' rotation, which includes Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Matt Shoemaker, Hector Santiago and a lot of questions.

"Everybody's looking forward to it," Pujols said of Richards' return.

"When teams play us, they wonder if they're going to miss G-Rich or not," Angels third baseman David Freese added. "He's that type of pitcher. He's big to our rotation. What he did last year, hopefully he can build on that. From the looks of it, he's ready to go."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.