Garrett Richards throws off a mound, providing a ray of light in Angels’ gloomy season

Angels ace Garrett Richards has not pitched since May 1.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Amid the rubble of a brutal 2016 season rose a sign of hope for the Angels on Saturday.

It came three hours before a 6-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, when Garrett Richards, who four months ago was “dead set” on having elbow ligament-replacement surgery that could have sidelined him for 2017, threw off a mound for the first time since injuring his elbow on May 1.

It was only 20 fastballs at 80% effort, but it was a significant step in a process that Richards, who opted for stem-cell therapy instead of Tommy John surgery, is confident will lead to his starting on opening day next season.


“As of now, throwing off the bump today, doing everything I’ve done to this point, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be able to pitch next season,” Richards, 28, said. “I don’t feel anything abnormal. Everything feels rested and ready to go.”

Richards, who is 29-19 with a 3.11 earned-run average since the start of 2014, plans to increase his pitch count and mix in some breaking balls in his next three bullpen sessions before facing batters on Oct. 1.

Barring setback, the hard-throwing right-hander, who resumed throwing on Aug. 15, will make two or three instructional league starts in Arizona in October.

“I’ve built up to the point where if I was going to feel anything abnormal, I would have already felt it,” Richards said. “I can honestly say I don’t notice the difference in the way the ball is coming out of my hand now as it did in spring training. My body feels great. My arm feels great.”

Richards suffered a season-ending tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in early May, the same injury that sidelined left-hander Andrew Heaney in April.

Both received stem-cell injections, but Heaney’s elbow did not respond as well, and he opted for Tommy John surgery on July 1. Richards fared much better.

“I hope this paves the way for other guys going through the same thing,” said Richards, whose teammates applauded him, jokingly, as he walked to the dugout Saturday. “It’s probably the best decision I’ve made in my career so far.”

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Albert Pujols hit another milestone home run, and Ricky Nolasco gave up five hits and struck out seven over six shutout innings to help the Angels snap a five-game losing streak Saturday night.

Pujols lined a 1-and-2 slider from Francisco Liriano over the left-field wall in the second, giving him 590 career homers and 30 in a season for the 14th time in his career. Only three other players — Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez — have 14 or more 30-homer seasons.

The Angels took a 2-0 lead in the fifth when Andrelton Simmons walked, took second and third on a wild pitch that Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin couldn’t track down and scored on Shane Robinson’s two-out single to right.

They scored two unearned runs in the sixth. Kole Calhoun walked, Mike Trout reached on an error, and Pujols flied to right, with Calhoun taking third. Jefry Marte hit a run-scoring grounder that advanced Trout, who was running with the pitch, to second.

Trout stole third with a Matrix-like, head-first slide, avoiding Josh Donaldson’s tag by pulling his left arm back while he grabbed the bag with his right hand. Simmons then lined an RBI single to center.

The Angels tacked on two more unearned runs in the seventh when Yunel Escobar reached on a two-out error, Calhoun hit an RBI double and Trout had an RBI single.

Catcher Jett Bandy left the game in the second inning because of back spasms that flared up on a groundout.

Up to speed

Jered Weaver hit 87 mph several times and 88 mph once Friday night, but it’s not the sheer velocity that has the Angels encouraged about the right-hander’s immediate future. It’s the ease with which he is producing it.

“He’s not chasing velocity,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “He’s staying in his mechanics, and the ball is coming out better in the spot he wants it . . . as opposed to earlier last year, when he tried to chase some velocity, and it would affect his command. Now, he’s getting easier velocity.”

Weaver, nearing the end of a five-year, $85-million deal, was 8-11 with a 5.47 ERA in mid-August and looked like a 33-year-old at the end of his career.

But with a renewed emphasis on flexibility that has loosened his oft-injured body, Weaver has gone 3-1 with a 3.77 ERA in his last five starts, holding two potent lineups — Texas and Toronto — to four runs and 11 hits in 12 2/3 innings.

“A lot of it stems from left-hip stuff and bad maintenance for 11 years,” Weaver said. “I’ve pitched through injuries, and it’s taken a toll. I never really paid attention to flexibility; I focused more on strength and cardio.

“When you’ve had 11 years of no stretching, it’s gonna take some time to get the flexibility back. But it’s getting better. Everything has been freeing up, and I’ve been able to throw the ball the way I want to.”

First-strike capability

Trout continues to benefit from a more aggressive approach in which he has boosted his first-pitch swing percentage from 10.6% in 2014 and 10.2% in 2015 to 17.2% this season.

Entering Saturday, Trout had a major league-best .607 average (17 for 28) with three homers, four doubles and 17 runs batted in when he put the first pitch in play. His overall strikeout rate has dropped from 23.2% last season to 20.7%, and his walk rate has improved from 13.5% to 16.3%.

“Even if I foul the first pitch back, it helps me to know what to do later in the at-bat, whether it’s to calm down a bit or be on time if I’m late,” said Trout, who entered Saturday with a .317 average, 27 homers and 89 RBIs.

“The last few years, pitchers have been throwing a fastball and getting strike one. I was getting into too many 0-and-2 holes, so I had to change that. I’m in more of an attack mode, and it’s helping me a lot, for sure.”

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna