As Garrett Richards stood on the mound in Minute Maid Park and prepared to deliver his first pitch of the season Sunday, he did not flash back to that ugly August night in Fenway Park, when he blew out his left knee, or to any point during the eight months of grueling rehabilitation it took to get here.
"I didn't think about anything but competing today," the Angels pitcher said after making his long-awaited return from knee surgery in a 4-3 loss to the Houston Astros. "It wasn't even a thought in my mind as far as breaking to first or if these guys were going to lay down bunts on me or whatever.
"Coming into the game, I was totally prepared. I'm done with rehab. I'm ready to go. That chapter of my career is over with. Now, it's about winning ballgames."
Richards did not win a ballgame Sunday, but the hard-throwing right-hander showed the kind of stuff and tenacity that should win plenty of them.
He was a little too amped early, and he struggled at times with his command while giving up four runs — three earned — and five hits, three of them infield singles, in five innings. He struck out four and walked four. Of his 100 pitches, 60 were strikes.
But Richards' fastball, which sat in the 94-95-mph range, was lively — maybe even too lively at times — and he showed a sharp-breaking slider. He looked physically sound while pitching and fielding his position.
And he even shared a laugh with first baseman Albert Pujols after running from the mound to first, catching a short throw from Pujols and touching the bag on Colby Rasmus' grounder to the right side in the fourth inning.
It was on a similar play last Aug. 20 that Richards caught a spike in the dirt, fell awkwardly to the ground and ruptured his left patellar tendon, a gruesome injury that cut short a season in which Richards went 13-4 with a 2.61 earned-run average and was in contention for the American League Cy Young Award.
"He said he wanted to make sure my legs were good," Richards said. "Breaking off the mound felt fine, and I had to do it quite a few times today. The knee felt great. The arm felt good. … I feel like I can do what I want to do on a baseball field. I haven't had that feeling in eight months or so."
Richards sandwiched a pair of walks around an error by third baseman David Freese that allowed the Astros to load the bases with one out in the first.
His fastball was cutting so much that two or three pitches that were actually in the strike zone were called balls because Drew Butera, making only his second start of the season behind the plate, had difficulty handling them.
"He's not an easy catch, by any means," Butera said. "A guy who throws that hard who has movement both ways with his fastball definitely has your attention span full-bore the whole game."
Richards escaped the jam by striking out Jed Lowrie with a 96-mph fastball and getting Jason Castro to ground to first, and he needed only 11 pitches to retire the side in order in the second.
"You can mentally prepare yourself to come back to this game all you want, but as soon as you step on the mound after being out for that long, you have to find a way to get your emotions under control and find a way to execute pitches," Richards said. "After that first inning, I felt a lot better."
Richards gave up a two-run homer to Luis Valbuena in the third and retired the side on four pitches in the fourth. But he gave up two runs in the fifth, a two-out rally sparked by George Springer's infield single and Evan Gattis' walk.
Lowrie swung and missed at a slider in the dirt for strike three, but the ball bounced away from Butera and toward the first-base dugout.
Butera's throw squirted out of Pujols' glove as Lowrie ran into the first baseman and caromed into foul territory, allowing Springer to score and Gattis to take third. Castro followed with a run-scoring infield single for a 4-2 lead.
"Obviously, I have some things I have to tighten up as far as the walks go, but it wasn't a terrible first outing," Richards said. "I can't nibble. I have to go right after guys, like I did last year. Trust my stuff, fill up the zone. Those things will come."