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TEX@LAA: Richards strikes out five over seven strong

ANAHEIM -- Maybe there's something to be said about playing with no expectations. Maybe it's no coincidence that now -- with so many integral parts on the shelf and the postseason a remote possibility -- is when the Angels are playing their best baseball of 2013. Maybe they're just more loose, more relaxed, more carefree.

Or maybe it's a lot more concrete than that.

"We're pitching," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "I don't think we're pitching because these guys don't feel like they have anything to play for and there are no expectations. No. We finally have some order in our rotation."

That order comes from the health of Jered Weaver and Jason Vargas, the yearlong steadiness of C.J. Wilson and -- perhaps most encouraging as this season winds down -- the evolution of 25-year-old right-hander Garrett Richards.

On Saturday, he gave up one earned run in seven innings against a potent Rangers lineup and only got better as the night wore on, leading the Angels to an 8-3 win that gave them 12 victories in their last 15 games. Richards retired 14 of his last 17 batters, struck out the side in his final frame and put his ERA at 2.96 over a nine-start stretch since taking Joe Blanton's spot in the rotation.

Has he locked up a spot in next year's rotation?

Perhaps -- but he isn't about to get ahead of himself.

"I've been doing that for three years now," Richards said. "At this point, I'm done worrying about next year. I'm going to take the innings that they give me right now and try to make the most of it, try to put ourselves in a position to win a ballgame every time. And that's really all I can do."

It's not just Richards' consistency that's different about this team.

When the Rangers arrived in Southern California for a weekend series, they had beaten the Angels seven consecutive times. Now the Angels have won back-to-back games.

From Opening Day to Aug. 21, they could barely touch lefties, batting only .244 against them. Since then, they've batted .293 vs. southpaws while beating up on the likes of Rays ace David Price and, most recently, Derek Holland.

Earlier in the year, they were one of the worst at cashing in on run-scoring opportunities. Heading into Saturday, they had a Major League-best .385 average with runners in scoring position over a 12-game stretch. Then they kept the pressure on all night, scoring three in the first, one in the second and third, and three more in the sixth.

The Angels are now seven games below .500 for the first time since Aug. 3, and at 12-3, they've completed their best 15-game stretch of the season.

"Next year, we can't come out tight," outfielder Mike Trout said. "We have to play loose. Maybe you can say we were thinking about trying to do too much early, try not to get in that hole [that they dug in April 2012]. There's a lot of things you can blame it on. But we're having fun now and winning ballgames."

The Angels got on the board in the first after Adrian Beltre made a rare misplay on Trout's RBI grounder and Mark Trumbo followed with a long two-run homer, his second in as many days and his 31st on the season, to give the Angels a 3-0 lead. Grant Green added a sacrifice fly in the second, Chris Iannetta notched an RBI single in the third and the Angels added three runs in the sixth, getting a two-run double from Green and an RBI double from J.B. Shuck to increase their lead to six and hand the Rangers their fifth loss in six games.

"We're just not getting the job done, and they're certainly very capable," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "We're only a game and a half out [of first place in the American League West]. We're not going anyplace. We'll be around. You go through those types of stretches, you hate to have them happen in September."

Richards had control issues his previous three outings and they came to a head his last time out, when he issued seven walks during a start in which he gave up only one run in five innings. Since then, he and pitching coach Mike Butcher have worked on "posture" and "not leaking to one side" and "just staying tall and trying to drop the ball downhill," Richards said after scattering six hits, walking one and striking out five.

He's making the necessary adjustments, he's trusting his stuff, he's not getting ahead of himself and, at last, he's showing consistency as a Major League starter.

"Everything he's done up to this point has made him the most prepared he's been for this opportunity in his life," Scioscia said. "I think that going to the bullpen helped him a little bit, helped us at times. Getting back in the rotation the second time, it seems like it's clicking for him better. I think everything happens for a reason, and I think he definitely trusts his stuff. He knows he has good stuff; it's just getting it in the zone."

Are the Angels more relaxed now that the grand expectations they carried into the season have subsided and the playoffs are a long shot? Perhaps.

More importantly, though, they're pitching.

"That's it, plain and simple," Trout said. "You look at our offense in the beginning of the year, it was up there in a bunch of categories. Some days we hit and don't pitch, and some days we pitch and don't hit. We're finally putting some stuff together and we're having fun and getting some momentum. We'll see where it goes."

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