Garrett Richards held the Brewers to one run and three hits over 6 1/3 innings… (Chris Carlson / Associated…)
TEMPE, Ariz. — One day after Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said he was "concerned" about his rotation's shoddy work, right-hander Garrett Richards delivered the team's best start of the spring Saturday, one that will probably thrust the right-hander into a role on the big league club.
What that role is, though, is difficult to discern.
Richards, his fastball firm and breaking ball sharp, gave up one run and three hits in 6 1/3 innings of a 5-1 exhibition win over Milwaukee in Tempe Diablo Stadium, striking out five and walking one. He threw 77 pitches in the game and 13 in the bullpen afterward.
"You couldn't ask for a guy to do more than he did today," said Scioscia, whose team began the game with a major league-worst 7.26 earned-run average. "For a lot of the issues our pitching staff has had, you have days like this when Garrett just lit it up. He had electric stuff."
Richards, 24, made nine starts for the Angels last season but spent August and September in the bullpen, and finished with a 4-3 record and 4.69 ERA in 30 games. Scioscia believes Richards' fastball-slider combination is well suited for relief.
With closer Ryan Madson opening the season on the disabled list, setup man Kevin Jepsen just returning from a tight triceps and long reliever Jerome Williams struggling, Richards has pitched well enough to earn a bullpen spot.
But Richards is also the team's top starting pitching prospect, and if he's not going to have a prominent relief role, the Angels would prefer he remain stretched out as a starter at triple A in case one of their five starters — Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Joe Blanton, Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson — gets injured.
"At some point, the length of a pitcher will evaporate. At what point that is, I don't know," Scioscia said. "If the question is, would he be better off being a middle reliever here or start at triple A, that's something we'll look at this week. But there's no doubt his arm plays well in the major leagues."
A wrinkle in the equation: Hanson was knocked out of his last start after three innings because of a tight triceps and might not be ready to open the season. Richards could make one start and move to the bullpen, or to the minor leagues, when Hanson is ready.
"I'm stretched out as a starter, but I don't know what their plans are," Richards said. "I'll do whatever they ask, whether it's relieve or start. Whatever happens, I can walk away from this spring knowing I did everything possible."
Richards has a 1.88 ERA in 14 1/3 innings and has limited opponents to a .213 average. He has made a subtle shift in his approach, "letting my stuff work instead of pitching to contact," he said.
There were times in 2011 and 2012 when Richards did not appear to trust his stuff. Though armed with a 95-mph fastball and three off-speed pitches, he sometimes pitched timidly. He has a different attitude now.
"Delivery wise and mentality wise, I can't stress enough how confident I am," Richards said. "When I get on the mound, I feel like I can dominate every game. I can get major league hitters out and control the game and give us a chance to win, which is most important."