Angels motivated to win for injured teammate Richards

Angels motivated to win for injured teammate Richards

ANAHEIM -- The walls were dry and the rug was clean by the time the Angels returned to their clubhouse early Thursday afternoon, the musk of stale alcohol now the only reminder of a raucous celebration that ended just 12 hours earlier.

On Garrett Richards' chair, though, their accomplishment was well-represented. Standing on the seat were two empty champagne bottles, remnants of a celebratory Wednesday night that saw the Angels clinch the American League West title for the first time in five years. And draped over the seatback was a red T-shirt adorned with "WIN FOR GRICH" in giant letters, symbolic of the pitcher they lost and the perseverance they showed.

Richards' season-ending left knee injury, suffered at Fenway Park on Aug. 20, was supposed to cripple the Halos, expose their greatest flaw and force them to lose their footing in a division the A's would eventually run away with.

Instead, it became a rallying cry for the Angels.

"It kind of pushed us together," first baseman Albert Pujols said. "We not only wanted to do it for our ballclub and our organization."

They wanted to do it for Richards -- for the brash-yet-lovable 26-year-old right-hander who vaulted himself to the top of the league and took his star-laden teammates with him. So they turned the page and kept playing, and they strung together some wins. And before they knew it, their AL West lead had grown from 1 1/2 games to 11.

"They didn't skip a beat," Richards said, a large black brace now covering almost his entire left leg. "I'm proud of them."

The Halos have a Major League-best 20-8 record since Richards suffered a torn patellar tendon in his left knee, an event pundits all over the country were certain they couldn't recover from.

"How do they know?" Angels outfielder Collin Cowgill barked. "How does anybody know what's going to happen? No one knows. No one knows the heart of every guy in this clubhouse. No one can measure that. Yeah, we lost Garrett. We didn't lose 25 guys."

There were no speeches in Boston that night, when Richards collapsed while covering first base, writhing on the infield dirt for 10 minutes before getting lifted onto a stretcher. Halos manager Mike Scioscia told his players to shoot Richards a text, and keep him in their prayers, but no team meetings were called and no motivational tactics were deployed.

"The nice thing is that nobody had to say anything," Angels starter Matt Shoemaker said. "Everybody knew."

The Halos were very realistic about what Richards' injury meant; what it will still mean. Scioscia chided when asked if it could galvanize his team a couple days later, saying: "I don't know if there's anything positive that's going to come out of it."

Scioscia was just being honest. Because as motivated as his players might have been to silence critics, and as close as they might have become in the face of adversity, the reality remained:

An Angels rotation that was already thin after losing Tyler Skaggs to Tommy John surgery would now be without the man who would've probably been their Game 1 starter in the playoffs, a guy with 13 wins and a 2.61 ERA through his first 26 starts.

"I remember the feeling when it happened in Boston, talking to guys and being like, 'Wow, this isn't good,'" third baseman David Freese said.

"I had my hand on his head for like 10 minutes," Cowgill recalled. "[Richards] was bawling. He was sad. We were sad. But I think, in a way, it also helped us. We said, 'All right, if we're going to do this, we have to do it together.' That's kind of the attitude we've had. We've just found ways to make up for him not being there."

They've done it by continuing to rely on their deep bullpen, which has the third-best ERA in the Majors and by far the most innings since the start of July, while having to band together every time Richards' spot comes up again.

They've done it with their potent offense, which finally came back to life while averaging 8.6 runs -- without cleanup hitter Josh Hamilton -- during a recent 10-game winning streak.

They've done it, lo and behold, with their starters, as Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Hector Santiago and Shoemaker have given up three earned runs or fewer in 20 of 22 starts since Richards went down.

"You hear the clichés, but this team has an incredible drive to achieve," Scioscia said.

"This is a group that doesn't think too much," Freese said. "We understand what we need to do, how we need to go about it -- and that's believe in ourselves, understand what we have in this clubhouse and understand that something special can happen. Missing Garrett is huge, but we also have to turn the page and keep fighting."

The fight continues in a couple of weeks, when the AL Division Series begins and the games get tense again. Maybe they'll miss Richards then, when they don't have his 98-mph fastball and the wipeout slider to match up against some of the game's most overpowering arms.

Or maybe there's something to what Weaver volunteered during the clinching celebration, saying "this is the best clubhouse I've been in in a long time." Or what Erick Aybar talked about a few days earlier, when he said this team "reminds me of the group we had before, when Vladi [Guerrero] and Torii Hunter were here, and we weren't afraid to tell each other things, and we were like a family."

Maybe this team was just built to persevere.

"Straight up, Garrett pitched great all year for us," said Wilson, a driving force behind the Richards-themed T-shirts. "His contributions got us to where we are. Now it's going to be up to the rest of us."

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.