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LAA@HOU: Richards fans nine in strong start

HOUSTON -- The four days that led up to Wednesday's start against the Astros weren't particularly unlike all the others for Garrett Richards. He allowed himself to stew a bit late Friday night, then flipped the switch by Saturday morning, showed up to the ballpark early and went about his business over the next 96 hours, preparing for the Astros and doing his best to block out a five-run, 2/3-inning start against the first-place A's.

But the anger leaked out of him nonetheless.

His manager noticed it.

"He was [ticked]," Mike Scioscia noted after the Angels' 4-0 win at Minute Maid Park. "He was [ticked]. He didn't take that outing in Oakland lying down."

His catcher noticed it.

"He definitely pitched like he had a little chip on his shoulder," Hank Conger said. "You could obviously tell he was antsy about the start."

And soon enough, his opponents would notice it, too.

Richards pitched eight shutout innings against the Astros, in a start that almost singlehandedly snapped the Angels' season-long four-game losing streak. He struck out nine batters -- including seven in the first four innings, and three of them on nine pitches in the bottom of the second -- and walked none. He gave up only four hits. And he threw 80 of his 107 pitches for strikes, giving him the highest strike percentage for an Angels starter throwing at least six innings this season.

As Astros manager Bo Porter said: "We ran into a buzz saw with the other guy tonight."

And it was clear from the start.

Richards needed 35 pitches to get through the first three innings -- two fewer than what he required to record two outs at O.co Coliseum five days earlier -- and only three of them were out of the strike zone. The 26-year-old right-hander threw 21 balls in a three-walk effort on Friday, and didn't throw that many until he got to the seventh inning on Wednesday.

"It was just regaining confidence," Richards said, "and not nibbling like I was in Oakland."

It's easy to do that when your fastball's hitting 97 mph in the eighth inning, and you can follow it up with a filthy, high-80's slider and a knee-buckling, high-70's curveball. Richards had so much working on Wednesday that he couldn't name one pitch, saying, "The slider was good, the two-seam was good, the four-seam was cutting in to lefties and the curveball was good, too."

And it was all on display in a quick yet immaculate second inning, when Jon Singleton, Matt Dominguez and Chris Carter each struck out on three pitches. Three other pitchers have registered a nine-pitch, three-strikeout inning in the Majors this season -- Justin Masterson of the Indians on June 2, Cole Hamels of the Phillies on May 17 and Brad Boxberger of the Rays on May 8 -- but only one has ever done it throughout Angels history.

Nolan Ryan, on July 9, 1972 -- a guy Richards' father idolized, and a guy who Richards has naturally modeled himself.

"That's just the type of stuff you rarely ever see," Conger said. "But with a guy like Garrett, that's the type of things that can happen, especially with his type of stuff."

The Angels (31-27) didn't do much offensively against Jarred Cosart, especially with Mike Trout missing yet another game with lingering back issues. They finally broke through in the fifth, getting a two-out RBI single from C.J. Cron, who's now batting .305. They tacked on a couple more in the sixth, on back-to-back, two-out RBI singles from Howie Kendrick and David Freese. And they made it a four-run game in the eighth on Erick Aybar's double.

Meanwhile, Richards deployed the best remedy possible for getting over a disastrous outing, tying his career-high in innings, tying his career-high in strikeouts, throwing a greater percentage of strikes than he ever has in a start and flat out dominating the Astros (25-35).

And yes, he did take the mound with some extra fuel.

Not even Richards himself could deny that.

"I definitely came into this game with a little chip on my shoulder," said Richards, now 5-2 with a 3.25 ERA on the year. "That last one was embarrassing. And that's not the pitcher I am."

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