In a way, Friday night was all that Garrett Richards wanted for so long. In another, it was none of it.
Richards did what he waited 17 months to do, dueling with Justin Verlander, carrying a shutout two-thirds of the way through the game. Then, minutes after his predetermined exit, the Angels renounced their grip on a scoreless tie and lost a game they had to win to remain relevant in the halting wild-card race.
"What are you gonna do?" Richards asked. "Verlander was good too."
After their 3-0 loss to Houston before a loud crowd of 34,127 at Minute Maid Park, the Angels' postseason dreams are nearing hopeless territory. Losers of five straight and under .500 for the first time since Aug. 10, they trail the Minnesota Twins by 3 1/2 games for the American League's last playoff spot with nine games to play.
Richards could only contemplate what could have been if he were healthy throughout this season. He missed five months because of an irritated nerve in his biceps, forcing the team to shuffle through below-average starters. Since he made it back, he has been as good as ever, his performances keeping the Angels afloat in a lean September.
"I can't help but think that I haven't been here the whole year," Richards said. "So, I'm trying to make the most of it now."
On Friday, that was still limited to six innings, his longest start since April 15, 2016. Richards' pitch counts in his four starts since his return form an unvarying pattern: 52, 63, 74, and 85.
After Josh Reddick doubled off the short left-field wall in the first inning, Richards retired the next 10 Houston hitters he faced. Only with two outs in the fourth did he issue a walk to Marwin Gonzalez, each pitch encircling the strike zone, missing by just a few inches. No other Astros reached base against him.
As soon as Richards descended the steps into the dugout after the sixth, Angels manager Mike Scioscia told him he was done. Richards felt great, felt like he could keep going, but said nothing.
"He had his mind made up," the right-hander said. "He's the manager."
Scioscia said he thought Richards could begin another inning and throw "a couple pitches."
"But," the manager said, "you don't want to find out on the backside that it was a little too much."
Yusmeiro Petit replaced Richards and ceded a single to the first Astro he faced, Jose Altuve. He then struck out Gonzalez with a pitch that appeared outside the zone. So outside, in fact, that both Gonzalez and Astros manager A.J. Hinch argued the call, and both earned ejections by home-plate umpire Dan Iassogna.
Alex Bregman next walked, Petit's typically pristine command betraying him. With one out, Petit left a 3-and-1 fastball over the middle, and Yuli Gurriel crushed the decisive three-run homer to left-center.
"Getting him out of the game," Hinch said of Richards, "is obviously key."
The Astros deployed three of their best pitchers in a virtual postseason rehearsal. Verlander, Chris Devenski and Ken Giles held the Angels to two hits, and the first came at the game's start.
Newly installed as the Angels' leadoff hitter, Kole Calhoun poked Verlander's first pitch into left field, beating the Astros' pull-heavy shift. The Angels' next baserunner was Albert Pujols, who forced a two-out walk in the fourth. After that, it was Justin Upton, who drew a walk to begin the seventh, then was erased on Pujols' league-leading 26th double play of 2017.
In all, the Angels made 24 outs between hits before pinch-hitter Ben Revere stroked a leadoff single to begin the ninth. That sparked a mini-rally, as Calhoun walked to bring up Mike Trout, but Altuve adeptly turned a double play on Trout's flare toward second. Upton popped out in foul ground, and the game was over.
The Angels (76-77) are on the brink of elimination, functionally if not yet mathematically. By the time they get to Chicago on Monday for a four-game series against the lowly White Sox, they could be done.
Left-hander Andrew Heaney (shoulder impingement) again played catch Friday. Though he has reported feeling well, he's increasingly unlikely to be able to pitch this season. … Right-hander Huston Street (rotator cuff strain) has plateaued in his rehab, Scioscia said. His season is likely over. … Third baseman Yunel Escobar (oblique strain) will head to Arizona on Sunday or Monday. He could be activated after a few instructional-league games.