PEORIA, Ariz. -- It was evident to anyone who watched the Padres last season that Mat Latos was the ace of the staff, Jon Garland was the reliable veteran and Clayton Richard, a 14-game winner like Latos and Garland, was remarkably steady.

So where exactly did that leave Tim Stauffer?

In the heated pennant race of September, when the National League West came down to the final weekend, there was only one pitcher Giants manager Bruce Bochy didn't want to run into.

"I was talking to Bochy, and he said the guy we didn't want to face the most on that staff was Stauff," said former Padres general manager Kevin Towers. "This guy has become a bona fide pitcher in the National League."

This doesn't surprise Padres manager Bud Black in the least.

"He pitched great in every role," Black said. "But when you talk about the success of the staff, he gets overlooked."

Bochy didn't get his wish, as on the penultimate day of the season, Stauffer allowed one run over 6 1/3 innings in a victory that hushed a sold-out crowd at AT&T Park, one that kept the Padres' postseason hopes afloat for one more day.

That victory brought to a close what was very easily Stauffer's best season in the Major Leagues. He went 6-5 with a 1.85 ERA over 32 appearances, most of which were spent in long relief until he moved into the rotation in September.

No, not even an emergency appendectomy -- one he had in May -- could derail Stauffer, a 2003 first-round Draft pick (No. 4 overall) who missed the entire '08 season after having shoulder surgery only to rise to prominence in the same organization that he was seemingly buried in three years ago.

"It was nice from the get-go in Spring Training to feel completely healthy, and to be able to go out there with everything feeling comfortable and to just concentrate on pitching," Stauffer said.

"I just kept the same mentality all year long -- whether I was in the bullpen or starting."

That mentality was working off his fastball and pounding the strike zone, which resulted in 54.5 percent of ground balls that the Padres turned into outs more often than not. Stauffer's FIP (Fielding Independent Percentage) was a scant 3.02 and he allowed 65 hits in his 85 2/3 innings.

"I had good life on it and was able to establish it. That's when I had success," Stauffer said. "In my earlier days [pitching for the University of Richmond], that's where I was with it. Last year, I felt more comfortable with my fastball and everything worked off that."

San Diego general manager Jed Hoyer admitted at the end of last season that one of his few regrets was not urging Black to slide Stauffer into the rotation earlier. But that won't be a problem in 2011, as Stauffer will likely hold the No. 4 spot when the team breaks camp late next month.

Stauffer has been a different pitcher since having surgery to repair a partial right labrum (shoulder) tear in May of 2008. He missed the entire season, then came to camp in February of the following year with the rest of the Minor Leaguers, still recovering from surgery. He made his season debut later that season with Double-A San Antonio.

Stauffer eventually got back to San Diego, where he posted a 3.58 ERA in 14 starts in the final months of 2009, which set him up for a blissful run the following season, first as the designated long reliever and then as a fixture in the starting rotation.

"When I saw him pitch last year, Tim looked a lot like he did when he was at Richmond," Towers said. "In college, he was a four-pitch pitcher, and he's that guy again. I was really happy to see the success he was having."

When was the last time Stauffer felt so good, so comfortable and so healthy pitching?

"Probably college," Stauffer said. "I was getting really good life on my fastball, and I was getting good extension. I had a lot of success with my sinker and getting balls hit in play. But the biggest reason for my success was I was throwing strikes."

The Padres enter the season counting on Stauffer -- the starter -- for the first time, and he would like nothing more than to surpass 32 starts and approach 200 innings. He wouldn't mind finding himself in the thick of a pennant race again, either.

"I was fortunate to get the opportunity to pitch in meaningful games," Stauffer said. "Each game or each win was a matter of making the playoffs or not. Being in that position ... that was fun to be a part of."