The last time Garrett Richards took a step on the field of a major-league ballgame, I was about 400 feet away—too far to hear the cry of pain that the broadcasters reported on the radio, but close enough to respond differently than I usually do to a critical injury. It wasn't until a few hours later that the sight of another human being in obvious agony loosened just enough to allow some of the more abstract concerns we have for our sports heroes: How long will he be on the disabled list? Who can the Angels find to take his place until then? And what does this do their playoff chances? Of course, no one knew at the time that the Angels would comfortably make the ALDS anyways and then definitively lose it without him, but we do now, so today was the day that everything broken would finally be fixed.
As a tuneup start for a pitcher returning eight months after a catastrophic knee injury, I would call today a success. What Richards proved is that he can still do what he did so well last year. In his five innings on the mound, the Astros pounded the ball into the ground 11 times and got only three into the air. One of them, however, looped over the fence with a runner already on base. This brief misfortune aside, Richards otherwise sent his opponents back to the bench with almost machine-like efficiency for three consecutive innings. The effortless 96-mph fastball, the hard 87-mph slider, and the stultifying 78-mph curve are all back and as beautiful as ever. Maybe even more beautiful, considering what we call a "fastball" from Jered Weaver these days.
But innings one and five, on the other hand, really challenged Richards, and drove his pitch count up to 100 by the end, even with no batted balls leaving the infield. Mike Estabrook's stingy strike zone did not help at all, but Richards threw too frequently off the plate to help himself either. On a sharper day, he might have worked around the tight zone, as well as his own bumbling infielders—he even escaped the first inning unscathed, just not the decisive fifth, when tough calls and tough plays only aggravated some genuinely erratic pitches and genuinely sloppy defense. Ultimately, the official scorer charged Richards with four runs, three earned, on five hits, two errors, and four strikeouts to go with four walks.
In other news, forgettable offense is so forgettable that I almost literally forgot about it today. Cron homered. Pujols homered. Some guys got on base but never posed a serious threat to Scott Feldman, professional junkballer. When Mike Trout doesn't hit, the Angels lose, as this week's uninspiring Texas vacation has convincingly shown. But I've never been worried about Trout, and the offense will score some runs eventually; for me, the early season has been about evaluating Shoemaker, Santiago, and now Richards. The Angels will need to get as much, and preferably more from them this season than last, despite the uncertainties associated with each one of them at the beginning. So far, so good on that front, I guess, and today the trend continued.