- Associated Press - Thursday, February 16, 2017

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) - When doctors found a partial tear in Garrett Richards’ elbow ligament early last season, the Los Angeles Angels’ ace immediately assumed he had lost two years of his pitching career.

Richards grimly figured Tommy John surgery was inevitable.

“When I came in that Monday, I walked into the training room and (said), ‘Hey, let’s schedule this thing as soon as possible, and that way I can get back as soon as possible,’” Richards recalled Thursday.

Instead, Richards threw his first bullpen session of spring training this week at Tempe Diablo Stadium. The right-hander is headed into the upcoming season with remarkable optimism about his return to full health without elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Richards and the Angels believe a combination of stem cell therapy and platelet-rich plasma injections have healed his ligament enough to resume his career with minimal restrictions. Richards isn’t the first player to use either treatment, but he might be the highest-profile hurler to avoid the famed surgery that has saved hundreds of pitching arms.

After apparently succeeding with this still-unusual treatment combination, Richards is hoping other pitchers with elbow problems will consider every possible path back to the mound.

“If you can prevent being cut on and having surgery, that’s the No. 1 priority,” Richards said. “I hope guys don’t just jump right into Tommy John. I hope they at least explore this option. Figure out what you’ve got. Get a second opinion. … It’s only gotten better since it happened, so I’m a believer.”

Richards had time to consider alternatives because of the timing of his injury: Since he got hurt in early May 2016, the estimated 18 months of recovery from Tommy John surgery would have left him fully healthy in late 2017, several months before the start of the 2018 campaign.

With time to explore options, Richards learned more about stem cell treatment and decided to give it a shot. In mid-May, Dr. Steve H. Yoon extracted the stem cells from the marrow in Richards’ pelvic bone and injected them into his elbow.

After 10 days of rest, Richards said his elbow felt “100 percent normal.” He lifted weight and lived a normal life, although he tried to avoid any exercise that mimicked a throwing motion. He even considered a late-season return, but the Angels were already headed to their worst season of the 21st century.

“I got a whole year off, so I feel almost like (hitting) a restart button,” Richards said.

After Richards pitched for the Angels’ instructional league team last fall, he had a platelet-rich plasma injection “just to kind of put the icing on the cake,” he said. The PRP treatment also promotes healing for a wide range of injuries.

Although Richards missed the final five months of last season, his return still seems remarkably quick. The Angels are cautiously optimistic he can be the pitcher who won 28 games and pitched 376 innings in 2014-15.

“It’s uncovered territory with Garrett, but we do have some guidelines that have been established with some pitchers that have had similar rehabs as Garrett,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “The confidence level is very high that he is going to move forward from the injury and be fine, but I think we need to be diligent on just the attention to detail, and how he’s feeling.”

Richards’ breakout 2014 season ended with a left knee injury while covering first base in August, sidelining him for Los Angeles’ only playoff appearance during his career. Richards rarely felt comfortable on the mound after returning in 2015, and he believes there was “a direct correlation” between his left knee’s tenderness and his right arm injury early last season.

Richards expects to be limited to about 100 pitches per start. He also decided to stop throwing his changeup, which he had only recently added to his repertoire before the injuries.

The Angels badly need a healthy Richards in their rotation. The club also lost No. 2 starter Andrew Heaney and regular starter Nick Tropeano to Tommy John surgery last season, part of the staggering series of injuries that sent the club to a 74-88 finish.

Heaney, who pitched just one game in 2016, also tried stem cell therapy, but it didn’t work as well for him. Neither Heaney nor Tropeano will pitch in 2017, Scioscia affirmed Thursday.

But Richards, who turns 29 in May, believes his career is on track after his setbacks. His first bullpen session in Tempe was brief, but another big milestone in his progress.

“I’m sore in all the right spots - everywhere I’m usually sore, and should be sore,” Richards said with a smile. “It’s nice to know that I’ll be able to start the season this year and kind of pick up where I left off.”

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