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MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Richards says thanks, but Weaver is still the ace

Angels' breakout star reserves that distinction for veteran and clubhouse leader

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MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

ANAHEIM -- Garrett Richards is media savvy, especially of the social variety. He is aware of what fans and insiders have been thinking, writing and advocating: Richards is the Angels' new ace, their No. 1 starter. Jered Weaver? Time to step aside, big guy. The new kid in town has arrived.

To those who feel this way and have been aggressively expressing their views, Richards has a two-word response: Please don't.

"Jered Weaver is our ace," Richards said as the surging Angels, following the All-Star intermission, prepared for a weekend series with the surprising Mariners at Angel Stadium. "He's a veteran presence in our clubhouse. He's our Opening Day starter. He's a proven winner. He's been to the playoffs, knows what it takes to get there and win there.

"His career speaks for itself. Jered's been our ace and is our ace."

Not quite two-thirds of the way through the season, Richards clearly has been the Angels' best starter. His teammates -- notably roommate and All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Mike Trout -- were upset the big right-hander from Oklahoma wasn't invited to join Trout and shortstop Erick Aybar in representing the Halos in Minnesota for the Midsummer Classic.

Richards, 26 and in his first full season in the rotation, is among the American League leaders in multiple categories, with his 95-98-mph fastball, deception and several showcase breaking pitches. When he trusts his developing changeup more fully, he should be even tougher.

Richards is 11-2 with a 2.55 ERA. He's tied with Felix Hernandez for best winning percentage (.846) among AL starters, tied for third in wins, fifth in ERA, sixth in WHIP (1.062), eighth in strikeouts (127) and leads in fewest home runs allowed per nine innings (0.292).

All of this from a guy who came into the season with an 11-13 record and a 4.42 ERA in parts of three seasons, with only 29 of his 84 appearances as a starter.

A strong finish to 2013 and a winter phone call from pitching coach Mike Butcher assuring him he was in the rotation had Richards visibly more self-assured this spring.

"Garrett has been unbelievable, obviously," Weaver said. "His stuff has always been there. It's just a matter of putting it together."

Richards and Weaver communicate freely, the younger pitcher wisely absorbing all the information he can gather from the big righty and lefty C.J. Wilson, the other veteran staff anchor.

Following seven scoreless innings against the Rangers in his final start before the break in Texas, pushing his personal winning streak to seven, Richards praised Weaver for helping guide him through a thicket of mental hurdles.

"Having Weav on the team the last few years, he's shown me different things and mindsets that have really helped me," Richards said. "He's an asset on the team ... somebody I can lean on."

Richards joined Weaver (2011), Frank Tanana (1977), Nolan Ryan ('79) and Chuck Finley ('90) as the only pitchers in franchise history with at least 11 wins and an ERA of 2.55 or lower at the All-Star break.

Weaver recalls how he once was in Richards' position, the kid in the rotation leaning on veterans such as John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar for support and wisdom.

In 2009, Weaver eclipsed longtime ace and mentor Lackey as the club's premier starter. Weaver was 16-8 with a 3.75 ERA; Lackey 11-8, 3.83. Weaver had 174 strikeouts in 211 innings, Lackey 139 in 176 1/3 innings.

When it was privately suggested to Weaver during that season that he'd become the club's true ace, he firmly brushed it aside.

"Lack is our ace," Weaver responded. "He's our lead dog. Case closed."

When the Angels faced the dreaded Red Sox in the AL Division Series, Lackey had Game 1, Weaver Game 2. Boston scored once in the two games, and the Halos completed the sweep in Fenway Park.

The AL Championship Series began with Lackey drawing CC Sabathia in Game 1 in New York, taken by the Yankees. Weaver worked Game 3 in Anaheim, prevailing, 5-4. Weaver was waiting, ready to go, for a Game 7 that never came when the Yanks prevailed in six in the Bronx.

Two years later, Lackey having moved to Boston via free agency, Weaver was 18-8 with a 2.41 ERA. Even then, he refused to accept the ace designation, in deference primarily to Dan Haren's distinguished presence in the rotation.

"I've always felt like we have five aces here," Weaver said. "That's how you win, with a group of guys who know how to win and compete."

Weaver was echoing Mike Scioscia's mantra whenever the manager is asked about where his starters rank numerically.

Weaver, at 31 with exactly 1,600 innings of wear, obviously doesn't generate the velocity he once did. But he still gets things done. Weaver is 10-6 with a 3.45 ERA, and his 1.13 WHIP is actually a shade better than his 1.14 career norm.

This is the guy who started the 2011 All-Star Game, who won 20 games and pitched a no-hitter in 2012, who led the league in strikeouts in 2010 with 233. Since his 2006 rookie year, Weaver is third among active pitchers in wins (123), second to Sabathia in winning percentage (.653 to .651) and sixth in ERA (3.26).

Weaver is 2-1 with a 2.61 ERA in 20 2/3 postseason innings.

All those supportive tweets notwithstanding, Richards is respectful. He knows what an ace looks like.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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