Behind Richards and rotation, Halos back in hunt
Young righty follows up remarkable June with another impressive effort
CHICAGO -- Garrett Richards has a simple description of life with the Angels as they head into the second half, these days closer to postseason baseball than the rigors of early mornings in Arizona.
"It's good vibes," Richards said.
Indeed it is, just as we all knew it would be two seasons ago, after owner Arte Moreno invested in Albert Pujols. We were even more sure last season, when they added Josh Hamilton to the lineup that already had Mike Trout and Pujols.
This year? Well, who knew what to expect after the once reliably good Angels missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row?
But Richards and his teammates have been answering questions one month at a time. They were 14-13 in April, 16-12 in May, 15-10 in June and started July by sweeping the White Sox in a doubleheader.
It was fitting that Richards worked eight strong innings in the opening 8-4 victory Tuesday. He's been as big of a key as anyone for the Angels positioning themselves for a Wild Card spot, if not running down the powerful Athletics in the American League West.
Richards was 4-0 with a 1.05 ERA in five June starts. Only the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw had a better ERA for the month as the Angels quieted the critics who questioned their rotation.
"Where we are right now, with our head above water, moving toward the pennant race, has more to do with our starting pitching than anything else," manager Mike Scioscia said. "These guys have really been giving us a chance to win every night out."
Through 80 games last year, the Angels were 37-43 and had a 4.48 ERA from their rotation. They entered Tuesday's doubleheader against the White Sox 10 games over .500 and with a rotation ERA of 3.69, the third best in the AL.
Richards (9-2, 2.81 ERA), Jered Weaver (9-6, 3.56) and C.J. Wilson (8-6, 3.90) have been the leaders of a rotation has required only six starters. Their consistency has allowed the team to get into a rhythm that eluded the Angels' recent teams.
"Everybody's on the same page," Richards said. "Everybody is coming to the ballpark ready to win the next ballgame regardless of what happened last night. Throughout the season, whatever happened the night before, we show up ready the next night. Nobody dwells on anything, everybody picks each other up. It's a good, mature clubhouse."
Richards, previously known more for his velocity than his results -- his fastball has averaged 96.1 mph this season, second to the Royals' Yordano Ventura among qualified starters in either league -- is showing his own personal growth. He started his afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field by walking the first two hitters he faced and then giving up a home run to Jose Abreu on a 3-1 pitch, but then retired 23 of the next 25 hitters.
Richards talked afterwards about hitting "a reset button" after the first inning. The Angels are essentially doing that as a team, trending toward a 90-win season as a reward for Moreno staying the course behind general manager Jerry Dipoto and Scioscia despite the bitter disappointment of the last two seasons.
Trout, Pujols and Hamilton never clicked at the same time last season. Pujols was bothered by plantar fasciitis and Hamilton suffered a power outage after losing about 25 pounds in the offseason. But they could be heading toward a summer when they work together to make the Angels a team with World Series potential.
Trout and Pujols hit back-to-back home runs off Hector Noesi in the fifth inning of Tuesday's opener, turning a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 lead. Hamilton added an opposite-field homer off Ronald Belisario in the seventh inning, only his fourth this season and 25th in 185 games since leaving Texas to sign a five-year, $125 million contract with the Angels.
It marked only the second time the trio has homered in the same game, but Richards said "it won't be the last time this year it happens."
Hamilton still has a long way to go if he's going to approach the level of Trout and Pujols. He was 3-for-6 with three walks (two intentional) in the doubleheader. Hamilton's solo home run off Belisario was one of only two in 25 games since he was activated from the disabled list. He tore ligaments in his left thumb April 9.
That was a "here-we-go-again-moment'' for Angels fans, but the team has remained steady, thanks in large part to the consistently solid starting pitching. Weaver, the ace when he signed his five-year contract extension late in the 2011 season, wasn't great in Tuesday's second game, but he competed like a fiend.
He doesn't have the velocity to blow pitches past hitters anymore, but don't tell that to Adam Dunn. He struck out on an 87-mph fastball, no doubt because his timing was thrown off by the lollipops that Weaver dropped into the strike zone at speeds as slow as 67.
Whatever it takes. That's the story for the Angels, and it's working just fine.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.