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LAA@SEA: Richards dazzles over seven shutout frames

SEATTLE -- Albert Pujols homered for the second time in as many days, Garrett Richards twirled seven shutout innings and the back end of the Angels' bullpen did its job in the eighth and ninth. But Wednesday's game was won in the bottom of the third, in the type of situation Richards might not have been able to handle just a short time ago.

John McDonald booted a potential double-play ball and sure forceout, and the Mariners put runners on first and second with one out, a two-run deficit on the scoreboard and their $240 million second baseman up to bat.

Then Richards toughened up, used a 96-mph fastball to get Robinson Cano to bounce harmlessly to the right side, then spun a 2-2 curveball just below the strike zone to retire Justin Smoak, a .471 hitter against the Angels entering that at-bat.

"Just from experience, I think the game has slowed down a little bit for me," Richards said after the 2-0 win. "It's basically come down to me just executing pitches."

Richards' execution gave the Angels their first win over the Mariners in five tries, splitting the two-game set and winning four out of six in a road trip that began with four games in Houston.

The ball was coming out hot early, and the 25-year-old right-hander started the game a little erratic, putting two of the first four hitters on with walks. But the Mariners finished with only one hit, and Richards -- with three walks and six strikeouts -- now has a 0.75 ERA through 12 innings of his first season with a guaranteed spot in the rotation.

Over his last two starts at Safeco Field, Richards has compiled 14 1/3 scoreless innings.

"What can you say?" Cano said. "His fastball was moving a lot and the guy throws 97 with sink. You have to give him credit. He never went down. He was 96-97 the whole way and his curveball was filthy, too."

Hours before first pitch at Safeco Field, the Angels found out they'd probably be without their cleanup man and hottest hitter until June, with Josh Hamilton expected to undergo a left-thumb surgery that would put him out six to eight weeks.

So don't dismiss Pujols' two-out, two-run homer -- the 494th of his career, moving him past Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff for sole possession of 26th on the all-time list.

Pujols is seeing the ball a lot better these days. He arrived in Seattle with a .200 batting average, zero home runs and zero walks. Then he took early batting practice, focused on staying back and finally started seeing results. On Tuesday, he homered, hit a very hard groundout to third and worked two walks. On Wednesday, he singled up the middle and homered off Mariners rookie Roenis Elias before flying out his last two plate appearances. And when he boarded the plane home, for a Thursday off-day that precedes a three-game series against the Mets, Pujols' OPS had jumped from .559 to .724.

"He has very high expectations for what he needs to do," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He takes it very seriously, he assumes the leadership role, wants to be the cornerstone of a lineup, and he takes that responsibility. It's good to see him do some of the things he's capable of. Hopefully it'll be there for a long time."

Wednesday marked the Angels' first shutout of the season and their first combined one-hitter since C.J. Wilson and Ernesto Frieri did it on May 22, 2012, in Oakland.

The Angels played "a good game tonight," Scioscia said, "not only because of the win but how we got it done." He was talking about how his setup man, Joe Smith, and closer, Frieri, were used in their roles for the first time all season. And how the Angels -- sans Hamilton -- need to be able to win games when they "don't mash the ball offensively."

Richards made that possible.

He's always had the stuff, with a high-90s fastball and a pair of wipeout breaking pitches, but Richards is now putting it together like never before. He showed some consistency down the stretch last season, with a 3.72 ERA in 13 starts. But he's taken it to a new level this year, posting a 3.47 ERA in Spring Training and giving up just four hits and one run in his first two starts of the regular season.

Part of it is learning the league and himself.

Part of it is the confidence Scioscia continues to point to and Richards himself feels, which is partly bred from no longer having to look over his shoulder.

"Knowing that I'm going to take the ball every fifth day is reassuring," Richards said, "but I don't overlook the fact that I earned that spot. I worked very hard to get that spot. This is just the next step. I'm looking every day to take my game to the next level."

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