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Richards reflects on injury one year later

Angels pitcher pleased with progress, but not fully recovered

ANAHEIM -- A full year after his injury, Garrett Richards still flashes back to the moment his 2014 season ended whenever he covers first base.

"As the play's going on, I just react, but after it's over, I think about it every time," Richards said Thursday. "I'll probably think about that forever. … It kind of seems like yesterday, you know?"

On Aug. 20, 2014, Richards tore the patellar tendon in his left knee trying to get to the bag, a brutal end to a brilliant season. Richards' electric stuff had produced a 13-4 record, 2.61 ERA and 164 strikeouts, spearheading the Angels' run to the best record in baseball.

Richards rehabbed all offseason -- "I haven't really had any down time in a year," he said -- returned to the Majors on April 19 and now, exactly one year later, he's made 23 starts for the playoff-contending Angels. He's thrown 149 innings with 12-9 record, 3.50 ERA and 117 strikeouts. His cutter still burns at 95 mph.

"In my mind, he's a slam-dunk for Comeback Player of the Year -- because of the circumstances, because of the level he's regained," manager Mike Scioscia said.

Richards has, really, come all the way back, or at least as close as anyone could have hoped for at this point.

"My opinion is, when you have a traumatic injury like he had and what he went through, I think it takes a full season," pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "He's done a great job of using what he has when he goes out there and competing, but his body's getting back to where it needs to be."

Butcher compared Richards' situation to Tommy John surgery, when pitchers often return healthy after a year but don't reach the top of their game until the second season post-procedure.

"As far as me pitching, I feel normal; I feel the same," Richards said. "But obviously I know that my lower half is weaker than it was last year. My whole leg got shut down."

Richards has farther to go, but he's getting there. He said he's starting to recover faster between starts; Butcher said Richards has straightened out his delivery, landing closer to where he was landing in 2014.

"He wasn't able to get to a more direct line to where he was last year," Butcher said. "He was a little more across his body -- but that's what his body was allowing him to do at the time."

That could be a reason for some of the more visible kinks Richards has experienced in 2015, like a drop in strikeouts and a sharp increase in home runs -- Richards has allowed 13 this year compared to five in 2014, mainly a result, he's said, of hanging too many sliders.

With Richards back in line and his leg strength increasing, his command and sharpness of his pitches could increase, too. When Richards' offerings aren't hanging, they're not easy to elevate out of the ballpark. His last start, an efficient seven-plus-inning win over the White Sox, provided a glimpse -- Richards pounded his cutter inside, shattered multiple bats, and recorded all his outs via strikeouts and ground balls.

"The best of Garrett is still to come," Butcher said. "The Garrett we have right now is more than fine, and is a great pitcher, but I think he's only gonna get better as we move forward in his career."

David Adler is an associate reporter for Follow him on Twitter @_dadler.
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