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LAA@HOU: Trout smashes solo home run to left

HOUSTON -- The Angels' season began with a demoralizing sweep at home to an up-and-coming division rival, and the critics were already piling on, and their hopes for a better April were sinking fast, and they badly needed a spark when they arrived to Minute Maid Park on Friday.

Hello, Mike Trout.

He did it with his power, turning a 1-0 fastball from Lucas Harrell into a heat-seeking missile over the left-field wall in the very first inning.

He did it with his patience, taking a bases-loaded walk on four pitches his next time up.

And he did it, surprisingly enough, with his arm, fielding a one-hopper in center field and throwing a strike to Angels catcher Chris Iannetta to record his first outfield assist in 19 months in the bottom of the second.

"It's not just me; it's all of us," Trout, humble as can be, said after a game that turned into an 11-1 rout.

Garrett Richards pitched five innings of one-run ball, getting out of a key bases-loaded jam in his final frame. Josh Hamilton went 3-for-3 with his first home run, a three-run shot off former Angels right-hander Jerome Williams to essentially put the game away. And the offense -- limited to one hit in 19 at-bats with runners in scoring position in the just-completed three-game series they'd like to forget -- amassed 15 hits and drew four walks.

But Trout set the tone, plating the first two runs and preventing another in two innings.

"Absolutely," said Hamilton, his batting average now at .462. "It's fun to be out there, it's fun to watch. First at-bat of the game, turn on one, hit a missile out. It got out quick. And that's a tone-setter for the offense."

The ball traveled an estimated 385 feet and hit off the "Halliburton" sign in left-center, making a loud rattling sound that echoed through the ballpark for Trout's second home run of the season. The next inning, Trout came up with the bases loaded, two outs, and Albert Pujols behind him, and still saw three consecutive breaking balls in the dirt and a fastball that missed outside.

"I was looking for a pitch to drive, but the first three pitches I don't think reached the plate," Trout said. "I'm just going to try to get my pitch, and if I don't get it, I'll walk to first base."

Trout's throw home the next half-inning, to gun down Marc Krauss and rob Jesus Guzman of an RBI, was most impressive - because arm strength is the one Trout tool that isn't off the charts.

As Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, though, Trout was 17 when he entered the Angels' organization, and players are never fully developed at that age. Then there was the Spring Training of 2012, when Trout battled tendinitis in his shoulder. Since then, the 22-year-old outfielder said he's "just trying to get stronger and get more accurate, and it's come a long way for sure."

"His arm strength has improved, just with the natural progression of a kid growing into his strength and his body, but also he's healthy," Scioscia said of Trout's first outfield assist since September 2012. "He's got a good arm, good release for center field, and he showed it tonight."

Richards, who gave up nine runs in 12 1/3 innings in his previous two starts against the Astros, got into trouble in the fifth, with a bases-loaded walk of Jose Altuve that put the Astros on the board and shrunk the Angels' lead to four. But on his 10th pitch to Krauss, his 35th pitch of the inning and his 100th and final pitch of the game, Richards spun a 2-2 breaking ball to freeze the Astros' left fielder, recording his seventh strikeout to end the threat.

"It was huge," Richards said of getting out of that jam. "I'm not going to give in, no matter what the circumstances are. It's all about making pitches and executing pitches and keeping guys off balance."

The Angels scored three runs in each of the next two frames to put it away, getting Hamilton's three-run homer in the sixth, then an Erick Aybar RBI single -- the 900th hit of the shortstop's career -- and a two-run shot from Kole Calhoun in the seventh.

It took four games, but the Angels' much-hyped offense had finally shown up.

"Five out of eight days, we're capable of doing something like that," Hamilton said. "We know the talent's there. We don't have to try to do it every day. But you have good at-bats and it becomes contagious. That's sort of the mentality we have."

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