ANAHEIM, Calif.–The atmosphere at Angel Stadium did not match it, but Tuesday's game between the Angels and Houston Astros featured the intensity the Angels hope awaits them next month. The Astros started Justin Verlander, he of the 16 postseason starts. The Angels started Garrett Richards, their staff ace who is still working his way back from an injury that claimed most of his season.
In a tidy, well-pitched affair, Verlander and the Astros two-hit the Angels and beat Richards 1-0.
Richards had not thrown a pitch at Angel Stadium in 17 months, first because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, then because of an irritated nerve in his biceps. The more recent injury limited him to around 65 pitches in Tuesday's outing.
Richards' return is nearly unprecedented in Major League Baseball. Teams do not often start pitchers who are incapable of lasting at least six innings. When they do, it's to begin a so-called bullpen game, usually because of an injury to a starting pitcher.
But the Angels are starting Richards in an attempt to build him up to be a standard starting pitcher come playoff time, if they make the postseason. And they can afford short starts because it's September and more than a dozen relievers sit in their bullpen each night. So far, their strategy is working. Richards struck out four, didn't walk anyone, and allowed nothing but singles in five innings of four-hit, one-run ball.
Still, he was bested by Verlander, whom the Astros acquired the same day the Angels acquired Justin Upton, from the same team, the Detroit Tigers. The two thought they'd contend there this season, but those hopes evaporated early.
On to new teams and new hopes they went. The Astros (87-57) have all but wrapped up the American League West, while the Angels (73-71) fell two games behind Minnesota for the second AL wild-card spot with Tuesday's loss.
To begin Tuesday, Verlander left a fastball over the middle to Brandon Phillips, who deposited it down the left-field line for a double. That would be the Angels' only hit until the ninth inning. Mike Trout and Justin Upton also received enticing fastballs, and both men lined baseballs to left field, where they were bought caught by Marwin Gonzalez. Then Albert Pujols grounded to shortstop.
Carlos Correa began the Astros' second inning with a first-pitch single off a high fastball. Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel also knocked singles into center, the latter scoring Correa with what would turn out to be the game's only run.
In the third, the Astros began to launch fly balls, but everything stayed in the park, and Richards steadily made his way into the fifth inning, which he completed in only eight pitches, helped by a double play. That bought his total to 63, right around what the club planned.
"We were thrilled he could get us through five innings," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
The Angels successfully traversed the final four innings with four relievers: right-handers Blake Wood, Cam Bedrosian, Keynan Middleton and Yusmeiro Petit.
Between the first and ninth innings, the Angels' only baserunner was Trout, who worked a seven-pitch walk to begin the fourth, then took a 97-mph fastball off his armguard to begin the seventh. Both times, the Angels failed to advance him past first base.
Verlander stayed strong through the eighth, his fastball losing no juice, his slider losing no spin. Against closer Ken Giles in the ninth, Phillips knocked an apparent double to right field, but his foot came off second base, slightly, detectably, and shortstop Correa kept his tag applied for the out. Trout soon grounded out to complete the shutout.
Left-hander Andrew Heaney will miss his next scheduled start because of shoulder soreness that forced his exit Saturday in Seattle. The team will use a host of relievers to handle that game, with the starter not yet set. ... MLB released its 2018 schedule Tuesday. The Angels will open next season in Oakland and end it at home against the Athletics. The season starts Thursday March 29, earlier than in past years because additional off days have been built into the 162-game schedule. The Angels will host Cleveland in their home opener on Monday April 2. ... The Angels lost right-hander Mike Morin on waivers to Kansas City, his hometown team. They designated him for assignment last week.