Garrett Richards on verge of return to Angels rotation

Garrett Richards will make a rehab start with the Angels' triple-A affiliate Tuesday

Garrett Richards will take the biggest — and, he hopes, his last — step in his return from left-knee surgery Tuesday when the Angels right-hander makes a rehabilitation start for triple-A Salt Lake in Fresno.

Barring setback, Richards, who has looked dominant in the controlled environments of two intrasquad games and two minor league games in Arizona, could return as early as Sunday in Houston.

“It’s the first time he’s in real baseball — the safety net is off,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “In triple A, you’re going to face some hitters who will let you know if you’re missing your spots, they’ll get good swings. It’s going to be an important test for Garrett.”

The triple-A coaching and medical staff will be watching Richards closely to determine how he maintains his stuff, how he moves around the mound and fields his position and how he comes out of the start. Richards suffered a ruptured patellar tendon while covering first base in Fenway Park last August.

“There are a lot of checkpoints,” Scioscia said. “Then we’ll determine where he is, where he lines up.”

If he passes all of his tests, could Tuesday be Richards’ only minor league rehab start?

“Possibly,” Scioscia said. “We’re definitely going to err on the side of caution, but we also don’t want a guy down there wasting pitches.”

The Angels don’t need a fifth starter until April 21 against Oakland at home, but if the hard-throwing Richards, who went 13-4 with a 2.61 earned-run average last season, is ready, the Angels would probably want to fold him back into the rotation as soon as possible.

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