ST. PETERSBURG -- Frequently getting behind in counts can be a dangerous game. Sometimes you can overcome it, but most of the time it catches up to you -- and Garrett Richards knows this well by now.
Five days ago, the 25-year-old right-hander struggled to fill up the strike zone in Seattle and still wound up pitching 7 1/3 shutout innings. On Wednesday, though, against a playoff-contending Rays team looking to snap a three-game losing streak, he paid a heavy price, giving up four runs and recording only 10 outs.
"I just didn't have the consistent feel out in front tonight," Richards said after the 4-1 loss that snapped the Angels' four-game winning streak. "It was either up in the zone, or I'd spike the ball. I just couldn't find the happy medium."
Richards, outdueled by the upstart Chris Archer, threw 36 of his 84 pitches for balls, started off behind in the count on 11 of the 21 batters he faced and even mixed in a wild pitch. He wasn't much better in that department on Friday -- 55 of 89 pitches were for strikes and he was behind on 16 of 26 hitters -- but he was able to put the Mariners away nonetheless.
In the second of a three-game series, he gave up seven hits, walked three and allowed three runs to score in a 19-pitch fourth inning he couldn't finish -- albeit on two slow rollers and one bloop single.
With runners on second and third and one out, David DeJesus hit an infield single off Richards' leg, Ben Zobrist drove in another run with a blooper into shallow right field and Evan Longoria made it a 4-0 game on a slow roller that was misplayed by shortstop Erick Aybar, prompting Mike Scioscia to go to his bullpen early.
"That was an issue, obviously," Richards said of commanding counts. "Just throwing strikes, period. I'm not going to take this as a step back or a negative. I'm just going to move forward from it."
Richards entered with a 2.75 ERA in six starts since taking Joe Blanton's spot in the rotation, but he isn't immune to the struggles that naturally come with falling behind -- no matter how electric his stuff can be.
When Richards is ahead, opposing batters sport a .163/.169/.206 slash line.
When he's behind, it's .287/.403/.414.
"If you just look at his ability to bring all his pitches into a game, when it's 1-0 it's tough for him because he's always working to get back into counts and not working to put guys away," Scioscia said. "There's going to be those occasional games like in Seattle, when he got behind and was able to get back into counts. But he's pitched some terrific games against good teams when he does have that first-pitch-strike ratio where he wants it and is able to put hitters away. He was just a little out of sync tonight."
The Angels totaled 20 runs in their four-game winning streak, but they were no match for Archer, a legit candidate in a wide-open race for the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
With a devastating fastball-slider combination, Archer gave up only one run in seven innings, scattering five hits, walking none and striking out five in his first career appearance against the Angels. He retired 20 of the first 25 batters he faced, including 17 of 20 through the first six innings, with the Angels' only run coming on Kole Calhoun's sacrifice fly in the seventh.
"He was able to command both," Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo said of Archer's fastball and slider. "He was able to throw the slider for strikes, but any time a guy has an upper-90s fastball in his back pocket, you have to respect that."
The Angels' bullpen kept the game within reach with 4 2/3 scoreless innings -- three of which came from Saturday's starter Jerome Williams -- but their offense couldn't come up with a second late comeback.
Archer is now 8-5 with a 2.81 ERA in 17 starts this season, and has given up four runs in 21 innings over his last three outings.
"Good stuff," Rays skipper Joe Maddon said, his club 2 1/2 games back in the American League East. "His fastball command was really good tonight, threw a lot of strikes with his fastball, the slider was outstanding once again. I think the big difference when he pitches like that is he knows where the fastball is going, and it was outstanding."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.