In the opposing clubhouse before Thursday's game, Garrett Richards was a palpable presence. He subtly invaded conversations. His stat line drew admiring chuckles.
For the second game in a row, Richards had drawn one of the best pitchers in baseball as an opponent. Last week, he held his own against Felix Hernandez, though the Angels would lose late. This time, he would face the Tigers' ace, Max Scherzer, the reigning Cy Young Award winner.
It was a bad draw for Richards. But, Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said, "Let's talk about those other guys getting a bad draw when they're pitching against Garrett."
Richards on Thursday endured his worst outing since May 30 in a 6-4 loss to the Tigers. He gave up four runs and seven hits over six innings.
But despite the hiccup, Richards is gradually becoming as feared as some of the other aces around the league.
Before the game, Tigers Manager Brad Ausmus decided to keep Nick Castellanos, a right-handed hitter, in the lineup because, he said, right-handers actually fare better against the right-handed Richards.
Then to prove his claim, Ausmus looked up the specific numbers. He found them and laughed.
"Righties are hitting 10 points higher," he said, but not triumphantly. ".198 to .180. Splitting hairs."
Entering the game, opponents facing Richards were batting just .192, lowest among American League starters.
"That's why he hasn't lost since May," Ausmus said before the Tigers snapped that streak.
On a conference call Thursday morning, Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski spoke about how much he liked the Tigers' dangerous lineup. But, Dombrowski added, hitting against a "top-notch" pitcher such as Richards would mean just scraping together runs.
Torii Hunter, the Tigers' right fielder, played with Richards for two years in Anaheim. Richards was inconsistent then, Hunter said. But he would show flashes of his potential.
"You always knew that this guy was a monster and could be a monster," Hunter said. "And now he is."
Richards' maturation into a top-line starter could be a key to the Angels' playoff aspirations. The Angels trail the Oakland Athletics by three games in the American League West but have a substantial lead in the wild-card race. Their lineup is arguably the scariest in baseball, and they lead the league in runs.
But in a playoff series or perhaps a one-game playoff, the Angels need a starter to compete with the opposing team's best, such as Scherzer and Hernandez.
Until recently, Richards hadn't been matched up against many of those pitchers. He pitched well enough against the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka in April and against Hernandez more recently, but the Angels lost both of those games, 3-2. Richards was credited with a no-decision in both.
Statistically, Richards has been one of the more dominant pitchers in the league. Even after the rocky outing, he is 11-3 with a 2.62 earned-run average and a 1.05 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched).
Scioscia said he saw signs of a breakthrough last season. Richards always had a lively arm and an overpowering fastball with movement. This year, his pitch velocity is up slightly, his command has improved and his slider has tightened.
That nearly led to a spot on the All-Star team. In the Angels' clubhouse, on the bottom shelf of Richards' locker, a T-shirt with "#VOTEGRICH" stenciled in red lies sprawled and half-folded, as if tossed there.
The shirt is a leftover from Richards' failed All-Star game campaign, when he didn't garner enough votes in the Final Five fan vote to make the roster. Chris Sale of the White Sox got the nod.
Ausmus told visiting reporters the five pitchers from that vote would make a formidable rotation. Richards would be among the best of them.
But the snub earlier this month, and the T-shirt still in the locker, were also reminders that though he had pitched as well as anyone for the first half, Richards hadn't cemented a reputation as one of the league's best— not yet.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times