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Garrett Richards' injury is huge blow to Angels in tight AL West battle

With ace Garrett Richards done for the year with a serious knee injury, the Angels' division title hopes could be in serious jeopardy.

Garrett Richards' breakout season has been one of the key reasons why the Angels own the best record in baseball, but on Wednesday night, the 26-year-old righty suffered a serious left knee injury and was carted off the field at Fenway Park on a stretcher. The injury will require season-ending surgery in a loss that will further deplete a rotation that recently lost Tyler Skaggs to Tommy John surgery and could carry major ramifications for the AL playoff race.

Richards was scuffling in the second inning of Wednesday's start against the Red Sox when he went to cover first base on a potential double play grounder off the bat of Brock Holt. First baseman Albert Pujols fielded the ball and threw to shortstop Erick Aybar for the force at second. Aybar pumped but did not throw to first, because Richards had crumpled to the ground en route; instead he threw to third base in an attempt to catch Xander Bogaerts, who had rounded the bag aggressively and had to scramble back to safety. Meanwhile, the pitcher screamed and writhed on the ground in obvious pain for several minutes before being loaded onto a stretcher. The video is here, and it's not a comfortable sight.

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The Angels wound up coming from behind to win the game 8-3, widening their newfound AL West lead to 1 1/2 games over the slumping Athletics, but that was of little consolation compared to the early prognosis on Richards, who headed back to Los Angeles for a 12 PM PT examination by team doctors. In the absence of a definitive diagnosis, manager Mike Scioscia termed it a "significant injury," but via's Alden Gonzalez, teammate Jered Weaver hinted at its severity and specificity, telling reporters, "When the doctor came in and told him he might have done something to his patella tendon and surgery might be involved, he kind of lost it." Surgery to repair the patellar tendon generally takes around six months of recovery, meaning that in all likelihood, Richards is done until spring training.

UPDATE: Thursday's MRI revealed that Richards does, in fact, have a torn patellar tendon in his left knee. He'll undergo surgery next week and will miss anywhere from six to nine months, putting him out for the rest of the season and possibly the start of 2015 as well.

The injury is a major blow to the Angels, not to mention the pitcher himself. A 2009 supplemental first-round pick out of the University of Oklahoma, Richards spent 2011-13 shutting in and out of the Angels' rotation, starting in 29 of his 84 appearances, showing promise but putting up a gaudy 4.42 ERA. A combination of improved velocity — more than 1.5 mph added to both his four-seamer (average velocity 97.2 mph) and sinker (96.9 mph), a gain all the more impressive given his move to longer stints as a full-time starter — and increased reliance on his sinker and curve have led to a significant spike in his strikeout rate, from 16.3 percent of all batters faced (6.3 per nine) to 24.2 percent (8.8 per nine).

Through 26 starts and 168 2/3 innings, Richards has been stellar, carving out spots in the AL's top-10 in homers per nine (0.3, first), FIP (2.61, fourth), Wins Above Replacement (4.4, sixth), quality-start rate (73 percent, tied for sixth), ERA (2.61, eighth), ERA+ (141, eighth) and strikeouts per nine (10th). That performance earned him a spot in the AL All-Star Final Vote; he lost to Chris Sale, and somehow managed to avoid being named as a replacement, placing him among this year's most notable snubs.

Even so, Richards has emerged as the Angels' best starter, claiming the staff ace mantle from Weaver. Among Angels starters, Hector Santiago is the only one with an ERA (3.46) that's less than a run higher than Richards', and Santiago has thrown just 96 1/3 innings while shuttling back and forth between rotation and bullpen. Weaver has sputtered en route to a 3.70 ERA (100 ERA+) and 4.24 FIP, which itself is miles ahead of the performance of C.J. Wilson (4.59 ERA and 4.34 FIP via a beefy 4.1 BB/9). Skaggs started off strong but saw his ERA rise to 4.30 before going on the disabled list on Aug. 1 and undergoing Tommy John surgery nine days later. Twenty-seven-year-old rookie righty Matt Shoemaker has been a pleasant surprise filling in for other injured pitchers, delivering a 3.84 ERA in 14 starts and seven relief appearances totaling 96 innings.

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Shoemaker is now a rotation staple instead of a safety net, which means that the Angels will have to turn elsewhere to fill in for Richards. The rotation at Triple-A Salt Lake includes lefties Wade LeBlanc and Randy Wolf as well as righty Chris Volstad, all of whom have significant major league experience, though the 37-year-old Wolf's 5.26 ERA (4.38 FIP) in 25 2/3 innings for the Marlins represents the largest sample size this year. The 29-year-old LeBlanc is pitching well in the high-offense environment, posting a 4.00 ERA and 8.4 strikeouts per nine, but he's been tagged for a 5.63 ERA (5.10 FIP) in 62 1/3 major league innings in the past two seasons for the Marlins, Astros, Yankees and Angels. In his lone appearance for Los Angeles, he yielded four runs in 6 1/3 innings of relief on May 30 after Richards was chased amid a first-inning barrage. The team's Double-A Arkansas rotation includes 24-year-old lefty Michael Roth, who has put up a 2.76 ERA there despite striking out just 4.8 per nine; he's been tagged for a 6.75 ERA in 26 2/3 major league innings over the past two seasons.

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​​The late date means that adding a starter from outside the organization requires a delicate dance on the waiver wire. The Angels' 75-50 record puts them last in the pecking order among AL teams, meaning that everyone including division rivals Seattle (68-58) and Oakland (74-52), not to mention the pitching-poor Yankees (63-61) and suddenly banged-up Tigers (68-56), can put in a waiver claim that could potentially block a deal. Most options who get through waivers unclaimed — allowing them to be dealt anywhere before midnight on Aug. 31 — aren't likely to be a whole lot better than the aforementioned replacement-level caliber alternatives within the organization, as the likes of recent Dodgers acquisitions Kevin Correia and Roberto Hernandez attest.

That said, the Mets offer two intriguing possibilities. Twenty-seven-year-old lefty Jon Niese is among those known to have cleared waivers. The 27-year-old lefty has pitched respectably (3.50 ERA, 3.96 FIP) and is affordable, owed only around $18 million through 2015-16, including the buyout of his $11 million 2017 option. Meanwhile, 41-year-old righty Bartolo Colon, who won the 2005 AL Cy Young award for the Angels before tearing his rotator cuff in the playoffs and embarking upon a half-decade long odyssey, has yet to be placed on waivers. Colon has pitched to a 3.85 ERA and 3.40 FIP thanks to the league's lowest walk rate (1.2 per nine) and second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.0). He's owed around another $2 million for this year plus $11 million for next year, which makes claiming him potentially hazardous to some teams' payrolls. Given how much success he enjoyed in Oakland in 2012-13, it's easy to imagine the pitching-rich A's claiming him, but first he'd have to clear waivers in the NL, where the suddenly depleted Dodgers would certainly snap him up if given the chance.

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You can expect general manager Jerry Dipoto to be increasingly aggressive in putting in waiver claims between now and the deadline — and perhaps even afterward, even though players acquired in September are ineligible for the postseason roster. Losing Richards isn't likely to cost the surging Angels a playoff spot; their current 7-1 run has given them a 6 1/2-game cushion as far as the worst-case scenario second wild-card spot goes. Even so, the injury may well be enough to help the A's regain their lost ground in the division race, thus forcing Scioscia to turn to somebody besides his ace for the do-or-die Wild Card Game. Thus while the season still has nearly one quarter remaining, when it’s all said and done, Richards’ injury may be second only to that of the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka when it comes to reshaping the postseason picture.