Twenty-four hours after the Angels' 2016 season unceremoniously ended in Anaheim, the franchise's most important game in months was played on an Arizona back field in front of a handful of fans and a bevy of scouts.
At exactly 12:30 p.m., Garrett Richards took the mound on Field No. 1 at the Chicago Cubs' spring-training complex.
In his first game action in five months, he threw 25 pitches over two innings against Texas instructional leaguers and did not permit a baserunner. He struck out two, his fastball idling at 94 mph and reaching 96 mph or 97 mph, depending on the radar gun. Though a bit restrained, he generally resembled the pitcher the Angels need if they are to contend next season.
As he works his way back from a torn elbow ligament, an injury he suffered during a May Day start in Texas, Richards will start twice more in the coming weeks — for three innings, then four — before shutting down until January.
On Monday, Richards estimated he threw at 85% to 90% effort, and he may not amp up all the way this year.
"If there's one thing this arm injury has taught me, it's that over-throwing is probably not the answer," Richards said. "I'm just trying to be smooth and put all my energy into the right part of my delivery."
He has scrapped the changeup he threw 65 times in six starts, a pitch he talked up throughout the spring as his next step forward.
"I think that contributed to the injury," he said. "I'd never had any elbow problems until I started throwing the changeup."
He said he does not have the inherent feel for the pitch to throw an effective one without over-exerting himself. Instead, he focused Monday on curveballs — big, looping ones, some perfectly placed for strikes and two missing wildly. Overall, he was encouraged by his execution of the pitch, and the complementary actions of his four- and two-seam fastballs.
"I honestly feel like the ball's coming out of my hand now better than it ever has," he said. "I have a better understanding of how I want to throw the baseball."
On May 16, Richards received an injection of his stem cells into his elbow as an alternative to ligament-replacement surgery, which would have forced him to sit out 2017. At the time, he did not express confidence the unusual method would work. He agreed to it because he had nothing to lose, keeping surgery as an option in a worst-case scenario.
But it worked out, so far at least. He is pitching. And, he said, he is pitching smarter.
"I've really had a lot of time to sit back and watch a lot of baseball on the bench," he said. "I've thought a lot about pitching sequences. I'm more aware of what's going on, I guess you could say, instead of going into robot mode and trying to continuously feed strikes in there. Sometimes we get caught up in the routine so much that we forget about the mental side of the game as well.
"I feel more aware of my body than I ever have. I feel like I have a better understanding of what makes me at my best."
As evidence, he cited his legs more often working in tandem and on time with his torso. He found himself impressed by the velocity Seattle's Edwin Diaz and Texas' Sam Dyson generated with little apparent effort. He wants that.
"I'm trying to do everything as simple as possible," Richards said. "I'm not worried about my arm feeling pain at this point. Right now, I'm just trying to throw the baseball the way I want to. All the gray areas I've gone through have already solidified themselves in my mind."
The Angels ceded 2016 around the time Richards began to throw, in early August. He traveled with the team thereafter, experiencing the letdown of an 88-loss season, craving competition. And now he has it.
"I realize our season's over, but I'm excited to be out here competing again," he said. "It makes you feel like a baseball player again and not just sitting collecting a check. As soon as I started playing catch, I convinced myself I'm going to be ready to pitch next year, and I'm not gonna deviate away from that."