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03/06/12 8:21 PM EST

Richards ready to step into spotlight

Young right-hander's chances for rotation improving

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Striking hitters out can be pretty cool. And when you're young, talented and have the kind of arm Garrett Richards possesses, strikeouts can be a fun, easy, demonstrative ego boost.

But they also require a lot more work and drive up pitch counts. Richards realized that in Double-A last year, so he made it his mission to draw some sort of contact within three pitches of every plate appearance, which eventually helped him take his game to a new level in the Minors. Now, he's hoping to use that approach to help him win the fifth spot of the Angels' star-studded rotation.

Because getting hitters to roll over on grounders in the Majors is a lot cooler than striking them out in the Minors.

"I really bought into that last year," Richards said after working two laborious innings in his spring debut on Tuesday in the Angels' 6-2 victory over the White Sox. "I sacrificed strikeouts, but I got a lot of ground balls. I was throwing my two-seam [fastball] a lot more and started really working on throwing it on the bottom half of the zone, and working it over the plate and just letting it do its thing instead of trying to create too much."

Richards, ranked as the Angels' top pitching prospect by MLB.com, is only 23 and hasn't pitched in Triple-A yet, so he looked like an outsider for the final spot of the Angels' staff coming into camp.

But now, with rotation favorite Jerome Williams' hamstring strain forcing him out of rigorous activity for at least a couple of weeks, Richards' chances look a lot better.

"I trained hard all offseason," Richards said. "I just wanted to show up and show them what I can do and hope for the best. Those aren't my decisions. All I can do is go out and do what I do."

The Angels trotted out several of their rotation candidates during their home opener at Tempe Diablo Stadium with non-roster invitee Eric Hurley and 2011 reliever Trevor Bell each throwing two scoreless innings.

But Richards, who surrendered two runs and needed around 40 pitches to get through his two frames, is the one who faced the White Sox starters. And Richards is the one with the big arm.

Now it's a matter of using it for big league success.

"There's no doubt, out of all the guys we're talking about for our fifth spot, I think his arm is the one that really jumps out at you," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "But it takes more than that to get Major League hitters out. Hopefully, Garrett has moved in that direction."

At a point in spring when pitching lines are almost meaningless, Richards mixed in mostly fastballs and sliders against White Sox hitters. Richards, who made his Major League debut at Yankee Stadium last August, struggled in limited time with the Angels last year -- posting a 5.79 ERA and 1.64 WHIP in 14 innings -- but rolled through the Texas League with a 12-2 record and a 3.15 ERA for the Arkansas Travelers.

If there was a theme for Richards' 2011 campaign, it was quality over quantity.

From one year to the next, his strikeouts dropped from 149 to 103 in the same number of innings (143), but his ERA improved from 3.49 and his WHIP went from 1.21 to 1.14 despite going from Class A to Double-A. He also fine-tuned his repertoire later in the year, shelving the slower 12-to-6 curveball to focus on his biting slider and temporarily narrow his repertoire to four pitches -- the four-seamer, the two-seamer, the slider and the changeup.

"He's growing up a little bit," said Bobby Wilson, who caught Richards on Tuesday. "It's the understanding of what he needs to do to be ready every time. The stuff's there. It's just all a matter of him putting it together, really."

The Angels like his curveball, but, as pitching coach Mike Butcher said, "It's a developing pitch."

When the Angels called Richards up to the Majors in early August, they wanted him to only focus on the pitches that were going to play at that level, and at that point, the curveball wasn't one of them.

"It's a very good pitch," Butcher said, "but right now the focus is to get him in the zone with those three pitches and command counts."

Richards will eventually break out the curveball again, but for now, he's keeping it simple.

And hoping it gets him on a Major League rotation.

"I knew that I had a chance, and going into Spring Training, I wanted to come in here and show them what I can do and hopefully make the team," Richards said. "And that's what anybody would want to do. Just come in and do what I do and let things fall where they fall."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.