Richards encouraged by season debut

Right-hander allows three earned over five in first start since serious knee injury

Richards encouraged by season debut

HOUSTON -- Garrett Richards got the sign, exhaled, came set, reared back and gave it all he got. Tailing fastball, chest-high, right past Chris Carter's bat. It was his 100th pitch, the third out of the fifth and the end of Richards' highly-anticipated return to the Angels' rotation.

He got the loss, gave up four runs, walked four batters and didn't pitch into the sixth inning, something Richards failed to do only twice amid a breakout season last year. But one of the runs was unearned, three of the five hits didn't leave the infield, two errors were committed behind him and several of his pitches in the zone weren't called strikes.

"Obviously, I have some things I have to tighten up as far as the walks go," Richards said, "but it wasn't a terrible first outing."

It provided one prevailing thought.

"His stuff is there," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said after his team ultimately lost to the Astros, 4-3, at Minute Maid Park on Sunday afternoon.

"He definitely wasn't short of stuff," catcher Drew Butera added. "He threw some pitches that showed some really good action."

Richards strikes out Lowrie

So much, in fact, that Butera occassionally had a hard time framing them.

Richards' lively four-seam fastball was 95-96 mph early and 93-94 mph late. He frequently mixed in the big, mid-80s slider, sprinkled in a handful of two-seam fastballs and added three curveballs to the mix. Three of Richards' strikeouts came on fastballs and the other came on an 86-mph slider to Jed Lowrie, a pitch that changed the entire complexion of his debut.

The 26-year-old right-hander recorded two quick outs to start the bottom of the fifth, in good shape to got at least one more inning. Then George Springer reached on a slow roller up the middle, and Evan Gattis walked on four straight pitches. Richards had Lowrie at 0-2, bounced a slider and got the Astros' shortstop to swing through it, but the pitch ricocheted past Butera, who made an errant throw to first that allowed a run to score.

"I don't think he's an easy catch, by any means," Butera said of Richards, who led the Majors in wild pitches last year for a reason.

The next batter, Jason Castro, hit a dribbler to the left side that third baseman David Freese couldn't corral, giving the Astros a 4-2 lead before Richards ended the inning on a strikeout of Carter.

"It would have been nice if he could have cleaned that up and gotten out for the sixth," Scioscia said. "It's what we need him to do. But he was just out of pitches today."

Richards was admittedly -- and understandably -- overamped when he first stepped onto the mound.

It had been nearly eight months to the day since he ruptured his left patellar tendon while covering first base at Fenway Park on Aug. 20, a knee injury that required surgery and prematurely ended his quest for the American League Cy Young Award. And those nerves were evident while throwing 14 of his 27 first-inning pitches for balls.

"You can mentally prepare yourself to come back to this game all you want," Richards said, "but as soon as you step on the mound after being out of the game for that long, you're going to have to find a way to get your emotions under control and find a way to execute pitches."

Richards eventually did.

After the first of two four-pitch walks to Gattis loaded the bases, Richards struck out Lowrie and got Castro to ground out, igniting a run in which he retired 13 of the next 16 batters - a stretch that was interrupted by Jose Altuve's single and Luis Valbuena's ensuing homer to start the third.

"After that first inning, I felt a lot better," Richards said. "I felt like something was lifted off me."

Richards broke off the mound on grounders to the right side in each of the first four innings, and Angels first baseman Albert Pujols finally tossed one to Richards in the fourth.

"He said he wanted to make sure my legs were good," Richards recalled. "Breaking off the mound felt fine."

Scioscia said Richards' delivery "looks great" and felt he "maintained his stuff well," but Richards wants to be more aggressive.

He caught himself "nibbling" too much on Sunday, and wants to get back to "trusting my stuff" and "filling up the zone" like last year, when he went 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA in his first 26 starts.

The freak injury that came after that, and the arduous rehab it prompted, is now a distant memory.

"I'm done with rehab," Richards said. "I'm ready to go. That chapter of my career is over with. Now it's about winning ballgames. That's what I'm concerned about."

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.