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Richard not surprised by ascension to OD starter

MLB.com @AJCassavell

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Clayton Richard's final start before signing with the Padres in August 2016 came on a high school field in Lafayette, Ind. The opponent? A local youth team called the Monticello Tribe, featuring a roster of 15- and 16-year-olds.

Twenty months later, Richard will start on one of the sport's grandest stages for the first time. Named the Padres' Opening Day starter earlier this month, Richard is slated to face the Brewers at 1:10 p.m PT on Thursday.

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Clayton Richard's final start before signing with the Padres in August 2016 came on a high school field in Lafayette, Ind. The opponent? A local youth team called the Monticello Tribe, featuring a roster of 15- and 16-year-olds.

Twenty months later, Richard will start on one of the sport's grandest stages for the first time. Named the Padres' Opening Day starter earlier this month, Richard is slated to face the Brewers at 1:10 p.m PT on Thursday.

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He said he'd prepare as though it were any of his previous 173 starts. Then again, Richard has always thought of Opening Day like a holiday.

Few ballplayers are as well-spoken as Richard, the valedictorian of McCutcheon High in Lafayette. Yet he struggled a moment to find the right words to sum up Opening Day. He settled on: "It's so America."

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So is Richard's story to get there.

Released by the Cubs in August 2016, Richard phoned a friend who coached a youth team in his hometown. He asked for some interim work to stay loose while he searched for a job.

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"[Pitching Opening Day] was definitely out of my scope at the time," Richard said. "But I know it wouldn't have been a surprise. I've worked my whole career to be in this position. It hasn't taken me by surprise."

When manager Andy Green tabbed Richard, he conceded that Richard didn't fit the conventional mold. Few pitchers make their first Opening Day start at age 34, and Richard isn't a true ace.

That said, Richard earned the start in every sense. He returned from two surgeries on his throwing shoulder, then underwent an overhaul of his mechanics, dropping to a three-quarters arm slot and a throwing motion that loosely resembles a slingshot.

"Yeah, the arm angle is down, but he's the same guy as he was then," says pitching coach Darren Balsley. "He's a fantastic human being and teammate. He's earned the right to be one of the leaders in there, just through his work ethic. ... He's learned how to prepare so well that once he takes the mound, he's done everything he can do. Now it's just about getting the hitter out. He leaves no stone unturned."

The title of "leader" isn't one Richard bestows upon himself. It's rooted in the subtler things he does. A year ago, Richard gave each of his teammates a copy of Dr. Seuss' "Oh the Places You'll Go" on Opening Day. This past offseason, Richard invited lefty pitching prospects Joey Lucchesi and Eric Lauer to his Indiana home to train with him. When he wasn't throwing, Richard spent hours at the Peoria bullpens watching every pitcher in camp, even when their sessions didn't align with his own.

Video: Clayton Richard on being named Opening Day starter

"He leads by example because of how hard he works," said Balsley. "He's very approachable, and he lets the young guys know he's approachable by approaching them first. He can seem intimidating, because he's so well-spoken, he's such a big guy and he works so hard. So, he breaks the ice."

Of course, leadership qualities alone didn't earn Richard his Opening Day start. The Padres are convinced his 4.79 ERA from last season was deceiving, and should drop with some luck and an improved infield.

If there are adjustments to make, the Padres know Richard will make them. That's how he got here, after all, from a high school-level scrimmage just 20 months ago.

"I understood that if I put my head down every day and trusted the process, things will take care of themselves," Richard said. "I'm not looking at outside circumstances I can't control and thinking it's rough or I had bad luck. I know that if I put the work in, if nothing else, at the end of the day, I'll have no regrets."

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.

San Diego Padres, Clayton Richard