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LAA@PHI: Richards fans eight en route to fourth win

PHILADELPHIA -- The Angels have been without both their leadoff hitter and cleanup hitter for a whole month and two critical relievers all year, and yet they're three games over .500 for the first time since 2012 and owners of a plus-32 run differential that's fourth-best in the Majors.

They just won five of six on the road, taking three of four from a streaking Blue Jays team and beating Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett in Philadelphia, even though Mike Trout and Albert Pujols went a combined 8-for-53.

How are they doing it?

It's simple, really.

"We had great starting pitching in April," Angels catcher Hank Conger said, "and they're continuing to do that."

The latest was Garrett Richards, the 25-year-old right-hander who's gradually developing into one of the best young starters in the game. He pitched seven shutout innings in Wednesday's 3-0 win over the Phillies, walking nobody for the first time all year and striking out eight to move to 4-0 with a 2.42 ERA.

His gem made up for the fact that the Angels went 3-for-15 with runners in scoring position and hardly capitalized on Burnett's five-walk, seven-hit, five-inning outing. And it set the game up perfectly for a bullpen that's starting to round into form, paving the way for Ernesto Frieri (eighth) and Joe Smith (ninth) to record six straight outs and lock down back-to-back wins at Citizens Bank Park.

See, starting pitching makes everything easier.

"It starts with the rotation because you have to get to a certain point, and you have to get guys lined up for the last couple innings, and we have done that," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We bridged it [Tuesday] night, and tonight, Garrett was his own bridge."

Starting pitching was perceivably the club's biggest question heading into the year, and so far it's the area in which the Halos have made the biggest strides. They finished 2013 with a 4.30 ERA that ranked 22nd in the Majors and have a 3.62 ERA in '14. On the trip, the starters posted a 2.75 ERA, allowing 12 runs in 39 1/3 innings, and completed at least seven innings on three separate occasions.

And in the finale, Richards took it to another level.

"He kind of reminds me of [Jered] Weaver when he came up," Phillies outfielder Marlon Byrd said. "He's just one of those guys who is really coming into his own."

That was most evident in the sixth, when the Phillies, trailing by three, had runners on second and third with one out and their cleanup hitter at the plate. Richards struck out Ryan Howard with a 2-2 slider in the dirt, then jammed Byrd with a 96-mph fastball that prompted a harmless blooper.

"It shows a lot," Conger said of getting out of that jam. "Before, if he was in a tight spot, he'd try to go harder, harder, harder. Now, he knows what he needs to do. I think the game overall has kind of slowed down for him."

Richards has struck out 54 over 52 innings, giving him a 9.2 strikeout rate -- a vast improvement over the 6.3 mark he posted last season. He has a quality start in six of his eight outings and has allowed eight runs over his last 33 innings, striking out 28 and walking 10.

Asked if he's surprised by all of this early success, Richards said: "Not one bit. I've worked very hard to get where I am. I've continued to learn. I'm figuring some things out as I go."

And the Angels are continuing to keep their heads above water.

Their lineup is littered with guys who were recently in Triple-A -- C.J. Cron, Grant Green, Efren Navarro and Luis Jimenez. They're getting only a .536 OPS from designated hitter Raul Ibanez, they're waiting on Trout and Pujols to get hot again, and they're without the likes of Josh Hamilton, Kole Calhoun, David Freese, Ian Stewart, Dane De La Rosa and Sean Burnett.

But they keep marching on, because they're finally getting the starting pitching that eluded them all of last season.

"Great trip, man," Pujols said. "You go to Toronto and take three of four from the Blue Jays guys who were swinging the bat pretty well, and then come here and end up winning the series in back-to-back days against two great pitchers. It's great. Hopefully we'll keep it going."

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