In his last start, June 14 against the Atlanta Braves, Garrett Richards tossed six scoreless innings and struck out 10 en route to an 11-6 victory. (Richards was denied the win when the bullpen coughed up the lead, but the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim ultimately prevailed in 13 innings.)

A dominant effort? Yes. Surprising? No.

That’s the kind of outing the Angels have come to expect from the 26-year-old right-hander, who has quietly emerged as one of the breakout stars of 2014—and propelled his team into the American League West race.

Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson came into the season as the Angels’ undisputed rotation anchors, and both have pitched to expectations.

Richards, meanwhile, has left expectations in the dust.

Entering play Tuesday, Richards led or was tied for the lead among Angels starters in ERA (2.87), WHIP (1.11), strikeouts (87) and opponents’ batting average (.208).

More importantly, the Angels have won seven of his last nine starts and currently sit at 37-32, within striking distance of the first-place Oakland Athletics.

With the Texas Rangers decimated by injuries, the Seattle Mariners hovering around .500 and the Houston Astros, well, the Houston Astros, this could develop into a two-team race.

Both of Richards’ losses this season have come against the A’s. On April 15, they tagged him for five runs in a 10-9 defeat, and they matched that total in a 9-5 drubbing on May 30.

In the second loss, Richards lasted just .2 of an inning. He gave up five hits, including a home run, and walked three. It was easily his ugliest appearance.

“In the back of your mind, you want to do better than you did,” he said after the May 30 debacle, per Fox Sports West’s Michael Martinez. “Two-thirds of an inning is pretty weak.”

The next time he faced Oakland, on June 9, Richards was strong: seven innings pitched, one earned run and a 4-1 Angels victory.

“I gave them one,” Richards told Martinez, “and I felt like this time was my turn to come out and show them what I’ve got.”

Richards—a first-round pick in 2009has always had good stuff. His four-seam fastball touches the high 90s and is complemented by a two-seam sinker and plus slider. Up to now, though, the stuff hadn’t translated to consistent results.

Last year, in his first full big league season, Richards posted a 4.16 ERA in 145 innings pitched. He showed flashes but entered 2014 as a back-of-the-rotation guy.

What’s changed? For one, Richards is relying more on his sinker, throwing it nearly 57 percent of the time to left-handers, per Sports Illustrated‘s Michael Beller. And lefties are hitting just .201 against him, down from .281 last year. He’s also refined his control and kept the ball down.

Not everyone saw it coming. The 2014 Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections (subscription required) for Richards were downright pedestrian: 154 IP, 10-12 W-L, 4.71 ERA, 1.47 WHIP—fifth-starter numbers at best.

Others were more bullish. Before the season, baseball sage Peter Gammons tapped Richards as one of his top five breakout pitchers of 2014, saying of the big right-hander:

It’s taken a while for Richards to learn fastball command, but this spring the command had improved. The hard sinking fastball was up to 97 mph and with Tyler Skaggs, the Angels are on the road back to having young power pitchers to mix in with the master, Jered Weaver.

Skaggs has had an up-and-down season, posting a 4.34 ERA through 12 starts. Richards, on the other hand, has forced his way into the All-Star conversation, pushed the Angels into contention and grabbed his manager’s attention.

“His confidence is high,” Angels skipper Mike Scioscia said of his young hurler, per the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike DiGiovanna. “There’s definitely a presence you can see with Garrett.”

A presence, and the results that come with it.

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