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Garrett Richards' torn elbow ligament devastates an already fragile Angels rotation

Garrett Richards sat at the far end of the dugout Friday discussing the latest calamity of his star-crossed career, a “high-grade” ulnar collateral ligament tear that will probably require surgery and sideline the Angels ace for the rest of this season and at least half of 2017.

The 27-year-old right-hander, one of the hardest-throwing starters in baseball, was reminded that just two summers ago, he stood in almost the exact same spot, on crutches, lamenting the fluke left-knee injury that thwarted a 2014 season in which he probably would have garnered Cy Young Award votes.

“Yeah,” Richards sighed, “I haven’t had a great couple of years, I suppose. Obviously, I’m disappointed. You can’t help but feel you’re letting your teammates down and abandoning them in the middle of the season.”

To an Angels pitching staff already decimated by injuries, the loss of Richards, who mixes a lively 97-mph fastball with a nasty slider, curve and changeup, is a devastating blow.

Two starters, C.J. Wilson (shoulder inflammation) and Tyler Skaggs (still recovering from elbow surgery), have missed all of this season. A third, Andrew Heaney (strained flexor muscle), has made only one start.

Struggling right-hander Matt Shoemaker was demoted to triple A this week, and closer Huston Street is on the disabled list because of an oblique strain.

And now the Angels, who weren’t looking like playoff contenders with Richards, probably will lose their top pitcher to ligament-replacement surgery after an MRI exam Thursday revealed the tear.

“That’s your ace, man,” reliever Joe Smith said. “He goes down, it’s going to hurt.”

As tough a loss as it is for the Angels, players feel worse for Richards, who returned from a grueling seven-month rehabilitation from knee surgery to go 15-12 with a 3.65 earned-run average in 2015 and looked strong this season, pitching to a 2.34 ERA in six starts.

“You see him work so hard coming back from knee surgery, and he pitched his [tail] off for us last year,” Smith said. “Then you see him walk into spring training strong as an ox, ready to rock. It fires you up to see someone who works as hard as he does. It’s just sad to see him face this kind of injury.”

Richards was pulled from last Sunday’s start in Texas after four innings and 79 pitches because of dehydration and fatigue, but he never felt the pop in his elbow or burning sensation in his forearm that often accompanies a UCL tear. He even played catch Monday and Tuesday.

“I never threw one pitch that made me think, ‘Oh my gosh, my arm is done,’” Richards said. “It was just something that progressed.”

That’s why Thursday’s MRI result “was a total shock,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “This surprised us all.”

Richards will seek opinions from other doctors, including noted ligament-replacement specialist Dr. James Andrews, before making a decision, but he conceded that “when you have a UCL tear, it leads to Tommy John surgery in most cases.”

The Angels were down to a four-man rotation before the injury. Reliever Cory Rasmus started in place of Richards against Tampa Bay on Friday night, and the right-hander could be stretched out as a possible starter.

The Angels could recall Shoemaker or left-hander Nate Smith, who is 2-1 with a 3.79 ERA in six triple-A starts, from Salt Lake. Or both. They are expected to be strong suitors for free-agent Tim Lincecum, the 31-year-old right-hander who is working his way back from hip surgery and threw for scouts in Arizona on Friday.

“We’re gonna take this one turn around the rotation at a time,” Scioscia said, “and see where we are.”

The Angels traded their two best pitching prospects, Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, to Atlanta for shortstop Andrelton Simmons in November. With a farm system that Baseball America rates as the worst in the game, the Angels probably don’t have enough prospects to trade for a front-line pitcher.

“We will look under every rock,” General Manager Billy Eppler said, “inside and outside the organization.”

One thing Eppler won’t do is give up on this season and consider trading center fielder Mike Trout for a haul of talent that could boost their depleted farm system, as some have suggested.

“No chance,” Eppler said of dealing Trout. “You do not move superstar players.”

What about beginning a rebuilding process by trading lesser players with value?

“We’re not at that point,” Eppler said. “We’re going to fight.”

The Angels rallied behind Richards’ injury in August 2014, going 23-14 in his absence and winning the American League West by 10 games.

“We can draw strength from that,” Smith said. “No one person is going to fill Garrett’s void. It has to be a collective effort. We still have to play today. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us and take it easy on us.”

Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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