Angels lose pitching duel to Astros ace Justin Verlander

For years, Brandon Phillips has made frequent use of a subtle maneuver while manning second base. When a baserunner slides in for a close play, the 36-year-old Phillips applies a hard tag to the opponent’s leg and maintains it, slowly amplifying the pressure. Often, he said, the runner will briefly lose contact with the base, and he will record a gift out.

In the ninth inning Tuesday at Angel Stadium, Houston shortstop Carlos Correa, 14 years Phillips’ junior, did it to him. Phillips laced a one-out liner down the right-field line and scampered to second for what appeared to be his second double of the night — until Correa nudged him off the base and tagged him out.

“That’s the first time I fell for my own trick,” Phillips said. “I salute him for what he did.”

Phillips said he felt some “extra loving” as he attempted to remain on the base, and replays reflected it. Correa said he didn’t think he pushed “too hard or anything.” Indeed, it was gentle enough for second-base umpire Pat Hoberg not to notice Correa was pushing, but forceful enough to have the desired effect: Phillips would have stood at second as the tying run. Instead he was the second out in the final inning of the Angels’ 1-0 loss to the Astros.

“I can’t get mad,” Phillips said. “Right there, in that moment, that play changed the game. He did a great job.”

Houston started Justin Verlander. The Angels started Garrett Richards, their staff ace still working his way back from an injury that claimed most of his season. In a tidy affair, Verlander and closer Ken Giles two-hit the Angels, with Phillips responsible for both hits in a defeat that dropped the Angels (73-71) two games behind Minnesota in the race for the second American League wild-card playoff berth.

Richards’ return is nearly unprecedented in Major League Baseball. Teams do not often start pitchers who are incapable of lasting at least six innings. When they do, it’s to begin a so-called bullpen game, usually because of an injury to a starting pitcher.

But the Angels are starting Richards in an attempt to build him up to be a standard starting pitcher come playoff time, if they make it there. And they can afford short starts because it’s September and more than a dozen relievers sit in their bullpen each night. So far, their strategy is working. Limited to around 65 pitches, Richards struck out four, didn't walk anyone, and allowed nothing but singles in five innings of four-hit, one-run ball.

“For the most part, I just went out and attacked guys,” Richards said. “I’m happy with it in the end.”

To begin, Verlander left a fastball over the middle to Phillips, who sent it to left for a double. Mike Trout and Upton also received enticing fastballs, and both men lined them to left field, where they were caught by Marwin Gonzalez. Albert Pujols grounded out to shortstop to end the inning.

Correa began the Astros’ second inning with a first-pitch single off a high fastball. Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel also knocked singles into center, the latter scoring Correa with what turned out to be the game’s only run.

Richards steadily made his way into the fifth inning, which he completed in only eight pitches, bringing his total to 63, just as planned.

“We were thrilled he could get us through five innings,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

The Angels traversed the final four with four relievers: Wood, Cam Bedrosian, Keynan Middleton, and Yusmeiro Petit.

Between Phillips’ double and near-double, the Angels’ only baserunner was Trout, who walked begin the fourth and took a 97-mph fastball off his armguard to begin the seventh. Both times, the Angels failed to advance him past first base.

Verlander stayed strong through the eighth, and Giles got through the ninth, with Correa’s considerable help.

Short hops

Left-hander Andrew Heaney will miss his next scheduled start because of shoulder soreness that forced his exit Saturday in Seattle. The Angels had termed him questionable Monday, but he was always likely to miss this start. The team will use a host of relievers to handle the game, with the starter not yet set. ... MLB released its 2018 schedule Tuesday. The Angels will open next season in Oakland, just like this season, and end it at home against the Athletics. The season starts Thursday, March 29, earlier than in past years because additional off days have been mixed into the 162-game schedule.

pedro.moura@latimes.com

Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura

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