Garrett Richards was already Plan C.
So watching him being taken off the Fenway Park diamond on a stretcher left the Los Angeles Angels scrambling for answers Wednesday night. The injury itself came on a routine play: While covering first in the second inning on a potential 3-6-1 double play, Richards' knee buckled under him.
The Angels' Twitter account offered this update Wednesday night:
Richards left tonight's game with a left knee/patellar injury. More info to come after he is fully examined #Angels— Angels (@Angels) August 21, 2014
Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com then provided the dire update we all expected on Thursday afternoon:
Garrett Richards has a torn patella tendon in left knee. 6-9 month recovery. Surgery next week. #Angels— Alden Gonzalez (@Alden_Gonzalez) August 21, 2014
Having just captured the American League West lead from the 74-52 Oakland A’s, the 75-50 Angels are now a glowing question mark in the playoff picture.
The team would never come out and say such a thing, but even a faint ability to see the obvious tells you Richards has saved the team’s rotation from being mediocre in a division dominated by starting pitching.
Jered Weaver was Plan A, but while he is pitching decently enough, he is not pitching like an ace, and he is not pitching up to the standards he has set the last four seasons. C.J. Wilson was Plan B, the man who could anchor the rotation if Weaver ever was not able to. But he has been a disaster relative to expectations.
That leaves Richards, a 26-year-old finally living up to his potential while becoming a top-10 pitcher in the American League. And now, because of an awkward step as he covered first base, a left patellar injury has likely ended his season.
There was no official word on the severity of Richards’ injury by the time Wednesday night turned to Thursday morning, but his scream and the blank expressions on his teammates’ faces meant reality quickly set in for the Angels.
Weaver heard Richards scream from dugout, the two talked surgery later. "He's been our guy all year. ... It's going to take all of us."— Alden Gonzalez (@Alden_Gonzalez) August 21, 2014
Trout: "I can't say much until we get the results, but it doesn't look good."— Alden Gonzalez (@Alden_Gonzalez) August 21, 2014
Manager Mike Scioscia would only tell reporters that it was a “significant injury,” but he clearly understands his rotation needs a quick fix if it plans to have an impact in October, where the Angels' shot at matching up with the likes of Oakland and Detroit suddenly got longer.
Richards, a first-round pick in 2009, was in a make-or-break year.
He already had 29 major league starts to his name before this season, but he was mostly ineffective and the Angels used him primarily out of the bullpen. But a strong showing in the second half of last season earned him a rotation spot this year, and he flourished in the role.
He is eighth in the American League with a 2.61 ERA, seventh in strikeouts (164), tied for fourth in wins (13), fifth in WHIP (1.04) and sixth in pitchers’ WAR (4.4). If you can’t tell by those rankings, Richards was one of the best starters in the league and a major reason why the Angels are in first place.
That's despite disappointing years from Weaver and Wilson and a season-ending elbow injury to Tyler Skaggs, although he wasn’t yet living up to his hype either.
A quick look at replacements for Richards isn’t promising.
The Angels' farm system is thin in that area with Wade LeBlanc (4.00 ERA), Chris Volstad (5.98 ERA) and Randy Wolf (4.58 ERA) as the Triple-A options. Double-A left-hander Michael Roth (10-6, 2.82) is an intriguing option, but throwing him into a playoff hunt with only one major league start to his name might be asking too much of the 24-year old at this point.
Then again, the other options don’t offer any kind of promise at all.
The Angels are helped by the struggling A’s, a team that couldn’t even shut down the anemic New York Mets this week. But counting on your biggest threat to lie down is no way to win a division.
Ideally, the Angels could just put spot-starters in place of Richards and not look back because their projected ace, Weaver, and his sidekick, Wilson, will live up to their billing—not to mention contracts— and lead the club to a division title. That probably isn’t lost on either man.
Wilson and Weaver will get their chances to sooth the hurt of losing Richards this weekend when they face the A’s on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Fail to do so, and it just might mean another high-cost disappointment of a season in Orange County.
Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He previously served three years as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News, as well as the Brewers beat writer for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
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