- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- It was 80 degrees, sunny and cloudless, when Clayton Richard followed the handmade signs that guide visitors down the labyrinthine path from the visitor's clubhouse to the green pasture of Wrigley Field.
"It's nice," Richard said, grinning. "It's like this every day in San Diego. It's a little warmer here."
Richard, the tall, ever-smiling ex-White Sox pitcher, was traded to the Padres on July 31 last year, along with Aaron Poreda and two other dudes you've probably never heard of, for a guy you have heard of, Jake Peavy.
It was one of general manager Kenny Williams' biggest deals, and thus far, the results have been tilted in the Padres' favor, if only because, not surprisingly, Peavy hasn't been able to stay healthy.
While Peavy is recovering from major surgery that reattached a pretty important muscle near his right shoulder, Richard is healthy, hale and pitching for the best team in the National League.
"I think it worked out well," Richard said. "I have absolutely no regrets."
Would you? Richard not only gets to live in beautiful San Diego and ply his trade in a notorious pitcher's park, but the Padres have suddenly become a major player with designs on an October run.
The upstart Friars had an Opening Day payroll of just under $38 million and were everyone's pick to finish last in the NL West, if not baseball, after they traded Adrian Gonzalez to a deep-pocketed contender, of course.
Heck, most figured that broadcaster Dick Enberg would be the most famous member of the organization by this time.
But it's the middle of August, and the Cubs (opening day payroll $144 million-plus) are the ones near the bottom of the NL, while San Diego added veteran reinforcements in Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick and has a pitching staff putting up ridiculous numbers.
After beating the Cubs, 9-5, to open a four-game series, the Padres are 70-47, with a 34-25 road record. They have a four-game lead over San Francisco in the NL West.
This is a continuation of a trend, not an anomaly. Last year, the Padres went 33-25 after the Peavy trade, after starting out 42-62. When Richard was first dealt, he thought of San Diego as a place for personal growth, rather than a team that could win right away.
"That was the initial thought, but as soon as I got in the clubhouse, you could feel there was a sense of winning, a winning attitude," he said. "The atmosphere is very conducive to playing competitive baseball. My thoughts changed very quickly."
Richard, a 26-year-old left-hander, is slated to start Wednesday's game against Casey Coleman. While Richard (10-5) still sports a nifty 3.80 ERA, he's been battling the last two months, with a 6.20 ERA since July. Richard is benefitting from the spacious design of Petco Park (3.24 ERA at home, 4.38 on road), but that's to be expected.
While few were bemoaning his absence after the Peavy deal was made, Richard's 2.74 ERA through the end of June might have made Sox fans cluck a bit about his value, especially when Peavy struggled out of the gate and went down after a truncated (7-6, 4.63 ERA) season.
I think it worked out well. I have absolutely no regrets.
”-- Padres pitcher Clayton Richard on being traded by the White Sox
But don't judge Richard's season by his recent numbers, and think he's trending toward Brandon McCarthy territory. Well, you can, but Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley wouldn't recommend it.
"To me, I know ERA-wise, he hasn't been as sharp has he had been earlier in the year, but he's learning as quickly as anybody that we have," Balsley said. "I think he's a much better pitcher than he was earlier in the year. It may not show up statistically, but he's learning how to throw his curveball for a strike, which he didn't have earlier in the year, and his changeup has improved also. It's a matter of the hitters in the league seeing him a little more and getting more familiar with him, and he's got to overcome that."
Richard is a major contributor to a lights-out pitching staff, which had a baseball-best 3.21 ERA coming into this series, and a durable starting rotation that has started 115 of 117 games. Fellow Sox expatriate Jon Garland is 11-8 with a 3.41 ERA.
The left-hander, who throws his fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, was 5-2 with a 4.08 ERA in 12 starts for the Padres last year, but Richard wasn't promised a spot in the rotation.
"I think we felt pretty good about it, but for me every day is a test," manager Bud Black said. "None of these guys are given anything. They have to earn it and he's earned his position on this team."
Black, the former pitcher and pitching coach, applauded Richard's demeanor and work ethic thus far, and noted he still needs to work on his secondary pitches and fastball command. Basic stuff. Black and Balsley's tutelage has Richard raving.
"It couldn't be better," Richard said. "They're both tremendous teaching coaches. They're able to put things into words in a way you can understand and learn from, and not just to hear them talk. They're able to relate it to you and how it helps you and not just give you a bunch of information and not tell you how to apply it."
Richard said Balsley, known in baseball circles as one of the best in his field, is a lot like his former coach Don Cooper, who has a more well-worn national reputation of being an arm whisperer.
"They're not terribly different," Richard said. "They both have their own way. Coop's a great coach as well."
Richard was an eighth-round pick in 2005 out of the University of Michigan, where he also played a little quarterback, but he gradually blossomed into a legitimate prospect. He went 4-3 with a 4.76 ERA with the Sox last season.
Richard said Williams' penchant for dealing young, homegrown arms is a nod to how well the organization cultivates pitchers.
"Kenny, Ozzie [Guillen], those guys in the front office, they know what they're doing," he said. "It's more a testament to their farm system and how they're teaching pitching in the system. I know I had the opportunity to work with a great pitching coach in J.R. Perdew and Kirk Champion, the pitching coordinator, they both did a great job of preparing me for this level."
Richard said he doesn't keep in regular contact with anyone on the Sox, but he follows their season. I forgot to ask if he watched "The Club" but I think I know the answer.
Richard threw 153 innings last year and with 147 innings already, he could pass that mark Wednesday. His between-starts routine has been adjusted a bit to lessen the load on his arm. On Wednesday, he just did some light work on flat ground.
While the Sox fight for their playoff lives without Peavy, Richard isn't making any plans for October.
"I feel great," he said. "I'm excited to be pitching in this part of the season, so I think that trumps how your arm feels."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Former Sox pitcher Clayton Richard has helped the Padres into first place.