Garrett Richards makes his return as Angels lose to Astros, 4-3

Garrett Richards makes his return as Angels lose to Astros, 4-3
Angels starter Garrett Richards delivers a pitch during the first inning of a 4-3 loss to the Houston Astros on Sunday. (Bob Levey / Getty Images)

Garrett Richards was good but not great Sunday in his long-awaited return from left-knee surgery.

The hard-throwing right-hander gave the Angels plenty of reason for encouragement while showing obvious signs of rust in a 4-3 loss to the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Sunday.

Richards allowed four runs — three earned — and five hits, three of them infield singles, in five innings, struck out four and walked four. His fastball sat in the 94-95-mph range, and he showed a sharp-breaking slider. But he struggled with his command and efficiency. Of his 100 pitches, 60 were strikes.

The great news for the Angels: Richards looked physically sound, and he even shared a laugh with first baseman Albert Pujols after running from the mound to first to catch a short throw from Pujols and touch the bag on Colby Rasmus’ grounder to the right side in the fourth inning.

It was on a similar play in Fenway Park last Aug. 20 that Richards caught a spike in the dirt, fell and suffered a torn left patellar tendon, an 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.

On Sunday, 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.

Richards’ 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 catching them.

Richards escaped the jam by striking out Jed Lowrie with a 96-mph fastball and getting Jason Castro to ground out to first, and he needed only 11 pitches to retire the side in order in the second.

But Jose Altuve led off the third with a sharp single to left, and Luis Valbuena lofted a two-run home run into the left-field seats to give Houston a 2-0 lead. The Angels tied it in the fourth when Freese singled and C.J. Cron, who entered with a .128 average, lined a two-run homer to left, his first of the season.

Richards needed only four pitches to retire the Astros in the fourth but ran into more trouble in the fifth, when George Springer reached on a two-out infield single and Evan Gattis walked.

Lowrie swung and missed at a slider in the dirt for strike three, but the ball bounced away from Butera and toward the on-deck circle near the first-base dugout. Butera's throw to first hit Lowrie in the right shoulder and caromed into foul territory, allowing Springer to score and Gattis to take third.

Castro followed with a grounder that Freese bobbled but was ruled an infield hit, Gattis scoring for a 4-2 Astros lead.

Pujols hit a towering solo homer to left field in the eighth, giving him 523 career homers — he’s now 18th on baseball’s all-time list — and his 46th against the Astros, tying him with Hank Aaron for the most against Houston. But it was Pujols’ first homer in Minute Maid Park since signing with the Angels before the 2012 season.

Astros right-hander Scott Feldman allowed two runs and six hits in six innings to earn the win, and Luke Gregerson retired the side in order in the ninth for the save as Houston won two of three games in the series.