PHILADELPHIA — Three of the Angels’ nine regulars — Josh Hamilton, Kole Calhoun and David Freese — remain on the disabled list, and two of their top hitters, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, are mired in slumps.
Leading off Wednesday was Efren Navarro, a seven-year minor leaguer with 23 big-league at-bats. Batting cleanup was Raul Ibanez, a 41-year-old with a .139 average and 32 strikeouts.
Two infielders, Grant Green and Luis Jimenez, opened the season at triple-A. Howie Kendrick, their best hitter who had played every inning of the first 38 games, got the day off.
A daunting task for the Angels? Hardly. They shrugged and carried on, as if none of it mattered, riding another superb start by Garrett Richards to a 3-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies in Citizens Bank Park to cap a 5-1 trip.
“We miss guys like Josh and Kole,” said reliever Joe Smith, who threw a one-two-three ninth for his five save, “but it gives us all the more confidence that when those guys come back, we should be set to roll.”
The Angels have gotten significant contributions from reserves such as Collin Cowgill, C.J. Cron, Green, Navarro and Jimenez, but the key to their surge has been the continuing excellence of a rotation that has combined for a 3.62 earned-run average and an improved bullpen.
Richards, who is emerging as one of the better young starters in baseball, allowed five hits in seven shutout innings Wednesday, striking out eight and walking none, to improve to 4-0 with a 2.42 ERA.
With runners on second and third, one out in the sixth and the Angels leading, 3-0, Richards struck out cleanup batter Ryan Howard with a nasty slider in the dirt and got Marlon Byrd to pop to third on a two-seam fastball that broke Byrd’s bat.
“I had a good, consistent delivery, I threw everything down in the zone, I had pretty good command and mixed speeds,” Richards, 25, said. “When guys got on base, I didn’t panic.”
“Before, if he was in a tight spot, he’d try to go harder, harder,” catcher Hank Conger said. “Now, if he needs to throw the two-seamer away or bounce a slider, he knows what to do. I think the game has slowed down for him. As long as he trusts his stuff, he can get out of jams.”
Ernesto Frieri, who lost his closer job in late April after going 0-2 with a 9.35 ERA and two blown saves in 10 games, looked sharp during a one-two-three eighth and has retired 24 of the last 27 batters he faced.
Smith threw a clean ninth to put the finishing touches on the kind of pitching effort that has allowed the Angels to absorb the struggles of Trout, who is hitting .154 (eight for 52) in 14 games, and Pujols, who is batting .100 (three for 30) in seven games.
It also allowed the Angels to win despite going three for 15 with runners in scoring position and failing to score after putting two on with no outs in the fifth and a runner on third with no outs in the seventh.
“We let these guys hang around,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “They’re way too strong of an offensive club. When you get a chance to put them away, you want to. But we matched them with pitching and were able to hold the lead.”
Despite the injuries and several costly bullpen meltdowns in April, the Angels are 21-18 and in much better position than they were through 39 games in 2013, when they were 15-24 and 10 games back in the American League West.
And they return to Anaheim for a 10-game homestand against three struggling teams, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Houston.
“Our goal is to be in first place or close to it when those guys on the DL come back,” Pujols said. “We’re playing great. Our starting pitching is awesome, and our bullpen is making some key pitches to get out of jams. That’s how you win championships.”