Garrett Richards pitched his way into uncharted territory Monday night. And the Angels' ace was so dominant in a 5-0 win over the Dodgers, he also carried his team to heights it hasn't reached in five seasons.
The right-hander shut out the division-leading Dodgers on five hits, striking out nine in the first shutout, and first complete-game victory, of his career. As for the Angels, the win moved them to 23 games over .500 (they're 67-44) for the first time since 2009.
Whether the team can maintain that pace could hinge on how well Richards can shoulder his heavy workload and his newfound status as ace of a battered rotation with two months of pennant-race baseball left to play.
"There's definitely a physical thing to it," teammate Jered Weaver said. "This is a totally different thing, trying to grind it out through 162 games and 32 starts."
Richards has already made 23 starts, a career high. And by going nine innings for the first time Monday, he extended his season total to a staff-high 1531/3, leaving him on pace for 32 starts and more than 200 innings pitched.
His career high before this season was 157 in 2011, but 143 of them were at double A, far from the pressure of the major leagues.
Richards, 26, also leads the team in strikeouts (152), leads the rotation in ERA (2.58) and is tied with Weaver for the staff lead in victories (12). But numbers don't tell the whole story.
With Tyler Skaggs sidelined for at least a month because of a strained muscle in his forearm, and with veteran C.J. Wilson struggling to regain his form after his own stint on the disabled list, Richards is now vital to the team's playoff hopes. But he entered the start against the Dodgers having lost his last two outings, giving up twice as many runs (eight) in 13 innings as he gave up in all of June.
The Angels don't have the luxury of giving the arm-weary Richards an extended break — or even shutting him down, as other teams have done to protect young pitchers whose workloads have increased substantially.
"We'll shut him down in November," Manager Mike Scioscia joked.
Richards and the Angels certainly figure to be playing deep into the fall if the right-hander continues to pitch as he did Monday, when he threw 122 pitches — 76 for strikes — yet still hit 98 mph on his final pitch of the eighth inning, striking out Adrian Gonzalez.
Still Scioscia, whose 1,300th win as Angels manager came against the team he once played for, said he will closely monitor Richards.
"Their health in the long run is more important to us than any one start," Scioscia said. "If we need to adjust it at some point, we will. We're not going to artificially do it and we're not going to throw him out there to the wolves if he needs to be pushed back."
Richards, though, was appreciative that he got to finish Monday's game.
"That's faith in me," he said of the decision to let him pitch the ninth, "and that's important to me. That my coaches and teammates have faith in me."
But Richards said the game will be just a memory come Tuesday.
"We got a win. That's the most important thing. I really don't think about my last performance."
For the third time in four days the Angels placed a pitcher on the 15-day disabled list. This time it was right-hander Mike Morin, who needed four stitches to close a laceration on his left foot. Morin, third on the team in appearances with 41, cut the foot Saturday in Tampa, Fla., while walking barefoot on a beach with a couple of friends.
Skaggs and fellow left-hander Joe Thatcher went on the DL over the weekend. Skaggs' diagnosis, a strained flexor tendon in his elbow, was reconfirmed Monday with a second MRI exam. Thatcher, who also had an MRI test, was in a walking boot to protect the sprained ligament in his left ankle. The loss of Thatcher leaves the Angels without a left-hander in their bullpen — and with six pitchers on the DL.