Richards working hard to move past knee injury
Angels righty aims to bounce back after stellar 2014 campaign was cut short
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The pregame walk from the bullpen to the infield with Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher is typically nothing more than a last-minute strategy meeting. But Garrett Richards was feeling uncommonly reflective on the afternoon of Aug. 20, because his season was going so well, a perfect sunset was developing and Fenway Park can often be a magical place, even on your average Wednesday.
"What ya got?" Butcher said, noticing his starting pitcher's eyes wandering.
"Just taking it all in, man," Richards responded, and so for a moment, they did.
Minutes later, Richards was lying on top of first base, writhing in pain and clutching a left knee that had sustained a ruptured patellar tendon, an injury that would end the 26-year-old right-hander's breakthrough season just as he was making a serious run at the American League Cy Young Award.
Richards reminded Butcher of that exchange recently. Butcher told him he still remembers it as if it were yesterday.
"It's funny how that works sometimes," Richards said last week while in the middle of an exercise room at Physiotherapy, a popular rehab facility located five miles from where the Angels will begin Spring Training in 10 days.
For the last 18 weeks, this has been Richards' sanctuary. He rented a house in Chandler, Ariz., worlds away from his home state of Oklahoma, so he could work out here five days a week throughout the offseason.
Now, at last, he sees the finish line.
Richards is set to run with his full body weight for the first time on Tuesday, and he hopes to throw his first bullpen session when pitchers and catchers report for their physicals on Feb. 19, at which point he can begin to prove he's still the same guy who dominated for most of the 2014 season.
"Hopefully," Richards said, "I'm going to pick up right where I left off."
Dr. Alan Beyer, a sports medicine specialist at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Orange County, has watched video of Richards' injury countless times and calls it "the perfect storm."
"It was just a perfect occurrence of bad events at the same time that caused this to happen," Beyer said. "It was extremely unlucky."
It's also extremely rare.
Ruptured patellar tendons are very common in basketball and football, but they're almost nonexistent among those of Richards' ilk. Only six other professional pitchers have suffered the injury since 2000, and just two of them (Henry Sosa and Garrett Mock) were starters.
The patellar tendon runs along the patella (or kneecap) and connects the quadriceps muscles to the tibia. When it tears, the bridge is lost, the patella comes loose and the leg can no longer be straightened, prompting a surgical procedure to sew the tendon back together.
Immediately after his left leg buckled -- in the bottom of the second, while sprinting to first base for a potential 3-6-1 double play -- Richards frantically felt around for his kneecap, only to realize it had ridden up near his hip.
Richards watched the video as soon as he got to the trainer's room of Fenway Park that night, and has seen it several times since.
"It's not more of a gruesome thing for me," Richards said. "It's more of a, 'Wow, that's super unathletic.' It looks like I don't belong on a sports field, period. For me, it's a little bit more embarrassing than it is gross. It is also gross, too, though."
Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto remembers how loud Richards screamed that night. Butcher recalls seeing Albert Pujols praying over Richards while he lay on the training table. Most vivid in Richards' mind is seeing all those faces hovering over him as he remained on the infield dirt for up to 10 minutes, waiting to get lifted onto the stretcher that would wheel him away from his final start of 2014.
Two days later, Richards had surgery in Southern California, got fitted for a boot and was told he could return in about six months.
"When I heard the words 'six months,' I instantly thought, 'Hey, Opening Day can be a real possibility,'" Richards said. "So that's kind of been my target since Day 1. Once we get to Spring Training, the way I progress is kind of going to dictate things. But I feel good right now, and hopefully when I get to Spring Training, it'll only get better."
Spring Training of last year wasn't really unlike any other for Richards. The fastball was still in the mid- to upper-90s with tailing action. The slider still sat in the upper-80s with crazy depth. The hitters were once again not ready for either of them.
But Dipoto noticed something different soon after.
"You could kind of tell very early in the regular season that not only had he figured it out, but he was tapping into something special," Dipoto said. "Once he started drilling into that ground, he liked the way it felt, and that kept his attention."
After back-to-back seasons of constant shuffling from the rotation to the bullpen, and several years of trying to harness overpowering stuff, Richards entered 2014 with a solidified spot in the Angels' rotation, and he wound up exceeding everyone's expectations.
Richards learned to slow down his delivery, began to understand swing paths, thrived under the five-day schedule of a starting pitcher and stopped feeling like any mistake could send him back to Triple-A.
"Sometimes it takes guys a little bit longer, sometimes it happens very quick," Butcher said. "Garrett was a guy that was a grinder, man -- a grinder with well-above-average stuff."
By the time he made that fateful walk from the bullpen mound in Boston on Aug. 20, Richards had transitioned from a relative unknown to one of the game's most dominant arms.
Richards became one of six Major League starters with an ERA below 3.00 and a WHIP under 1.05, joining Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright and Chris Sale. He allowed the 12th-lowest opponents' slugging percentage in Major League history. And Richards did it all with a fastball velocity that was the highest among qualified starting pitchers at 96.4 mph.
"Garrett grew more as a person and as a player, in his work habits and his style and his preparation, than anybody I've seen in recent memory," Dipoto said.
But can Richards be just as dominant in 2015, after such a debilitating injury?
"I don't see why I couldn't," Richards said. "I learned a lot last year, I will continue to learn. Physically, I feel almost 100 percent, with the exception of the knee. My arm feels good. I know what I do well; I kind of know what type of pitcher I am now and what I bring to the table."
Richards is just glad he no longer has to do those annoying leg lifts that basically consumed his entire November.
"You get tired of counting to 20 in the offseason, I'll tell you that," Richards said. "I've counted to 20 more times than I can imagine."
While the Angels moved on without Richards -- miraculously winning 20 of their next 27 games to capture the AL West title and finish with a Major League-best 98-64 record -- he was sequestered on his Newport Beach, Calif., couch, binge-watching his favorite shows on Netflix while keeping his left leg elevated.
After a month, Richards stopped sulking and started to move on, setting small goals rather than lamenting the overall length of his rehab. Shortly after his Angels were swept by the Royals in the AL Division Series, he moved to Arizona and began to work with one of Physiotherapy's physical therapists, Keith Kocher, who has previously rehabbed the likes of Kendrys Morales, Troy Percival and Tim Salmon.
In November, Richards started weight-bearing exercises. In early December, he started to play catch. In the second week of January, Richards started his running program.
"It seems like he heals real well," Kocher said. "He hasn't had any setbacks at all. But I think the biggest test is yet to come. His job is to get on the mound and throw and be able to function on the field, and that's kind of in the future."
There's uncertainty in that realm, but also promise.
The injury mostly impacts vertical leap and speed, both of which are mostly irrelevant to Richards. Neither Beyer nor Kocher believe sustaining the injury on a pitcher's landing leg is any more traumatic than the push-off leg. They see Richards' youth and lack of prior knee injuries as strong indications he'll make a full recovery, especially given an entire Spring Training to get right.
These days, Richards laughs about the incident a lot more than he dwells on it.
Richards gained that mindset with a little more of that uncommon reflection.
"I thought to myself, 'What else am I gonna do if I'm not playing baseball?'" Richards said. "I'm still able to play baseball; I'm not completely broke. I just honestly want to get back on the field. I'm ready to get back with my teammates, I'm ready to get back in that atmosphere, I'm ready to watch other starting pitchers pitch, I'm ready for everything that comes with being on a professional baseball team. Back to the routine, the grind, the traveling. I'm ready to go, man."