The Angels were four batters into a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday when Garrett Richards put them in a three-run hole by walking two and giving up a three-run home run to Jose Abreu.
The Richards of 2012 or 2013 may have collapsed. Heck, the Richards of this last May 30 failed to make it out of the first inning at Oakland after giving up two singles, a walk and a grand slam to the first four batters.
But this Richards seems different. He has more of an edge, a swagger, a confidence that rivals his stuff, which is often described as "filthy," a lively 96-mph fastball and a sharp breaking ball.
This Richards rebounded from the Abreu homer to retire 23 of 25 batters in a sparkling eight-inning, two-hit, three-run, nine-strikeout effort that led the Angels to an 8-4 Game 1 victory at U.S. Cellular Field. The Angels also won Game 2, 7-5, for their first doubleheader sweep since July 21, 2009, at Kansas City. In the process, they cut Oakland’s lead in the AL West to 3 1/2 games.
"The pitcher I am this year is far beyond the pitcher I was last year or the year before," Richards, 26, said. "Last year, or the year before, this game could have snowballed, and I would have been out in the fourth inning.
"But I wasn't going to let three runs in the first ruin my day. I think that's the maturing process I've gone through as a pitcher, and I'm happy with the direction I'm moving."
There seems little doubt that Richards' performance is pointing him toward Minnesota for the July 15 All-Star Game. Since that 2/3-inning, five-run debacle in Oakland, Richards has gone 5-0 with a 1.49 earned-run average in six starts to improve to 9-2 with a 2.81 ERA on the season.
After Tuesday's rocky start, Manager Mike Scioscia said Richards "really focused on getting into the zone early." But Richards said nothing changed after Abreu hit his major-league-leading 26th homer.
"I was the same pitcher from beginning to end," Richards said. "I kept pounding the zone, throwing quality strikes and getting ahead of guys."
The same can't be said for Rich Hill, the 34-year-old left-hander purchased from the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday, the second time in five days the Angels moved to bolster a bullpen that has a 4.24 ERA and ranks second in the American League with 12 blown saves.
Hill, who was 3-3 with a 3.23 ERA in 25 games for triple-A Pawtucket, replaced Richards with a five-run lead in the ninth and gave up a single and two walks. He was summoned again in the sixth inning of Game 2 and walked Adam Eaton with a wild pitch that put runners on first and third.
Both times, Hill was bailed out of trouble.
"He had good velocity, good stuff," Scioscia said. "He just had trouble getting the ball into zones."
The Angels hoped Hill, who went 1-2 with a 6.28 ERA in 63 games for Cleveland last season but has held left-handers to a .215 mark in nine years, could be the left-handed specialist they haven't had all season. That appears doubtful.
The Angels acquired Jason Grilli from Pittsburgh for Ernesto Frieri last Friday in an exchange of struggling closers. General Manager Jerry Dipoto will continue to pursue relief help, with closers Jonathan Papelbon (Philadelphia) and Huston Street (San Diego) among his likely targets.
"Where you are two weeks or a month from now, you never know," Scioscia said before Tuesday's games. "But these moves are made for a reason. It's not a tryout. Jerry feels [Hill] is going to give us a better look, so we want to explore that."