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He knows his stuff

But can Clement convert his dazzling pitches into wins for Red Sox?

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Leaving Las Vegas that day in 1998, having visited with the organization's top pitching prospect, the Padres' baseball operations assistant filed away what he'd witnessed. To this day, one indelible recollection remains.

"The game I went to," Theo Epstein said, "he plunked two guys. He set the Las Vegas record for hit batsmen by June 1."

Matt Clement dinged 30 guys that Triple A season.

"He was just a real talent," said Epstein, the Red Sox general manager, who as a San Diego front-office assistant drew up Clement's first multiyear contract. "He was always more of a stuff guy, tremendous life on his fastball, pretty wild coming up."

Clement tasted the big leagues that year, pitched a full major league season in 1999, then established three San Diego records in 2000.

"Probably wild pitches? Walks? And hit batsman?" Clement asked. "I almost won the Triple Crown that year in the big leagues. I led in walks and wild pitches. Hit batsman I was second."

Clement's recollection is accurate. He walked 125 batters and threw 23 wild pitches, both major league highs. His 16 hit batsmen tied for second, trailing only Jaret Wright's 18. That would be his lasting image in San Diego: Kevin Brown stuff, inconsistent results.

That legacy continues to accompany Clement, now to Boston. He'll make $6.5 million this season, $9.5 million next season, and $9.5 million in 2007.

Clement long has been a perplexing case, someone with the tools of a No. 1, the execution of a No. 2 or 3, and the win total of a No. 4 or 5. He averaged fewer than 12 wins in three seasons in Chicago despite ERAs of 3.60, 4.11, and 3.68.

He's less unpredictable, though he still walked 77, hit 12 (fifth in the NL), and threw 14 wild pitches (second in the NL) in 2004. And, he comes with a tag of being somewhat of a Derek Lowe: bad body language, inability to stop the bleeding after it begins.

That's also why the Sox pursued free agent prize Carl Pavano, steady veteran Brad Radke, and sure thing Tim Hudson, as well as A.J. Burnett, before inking Clement, who, of course, nearly became a Red Sox last July.

Epstein and Cubs general manager Jim Hendry communicated most of that month. They discussed swapping Nomar Garciaparra for Clement, but that wouldn't have addressed Epstein's desire to upgrade the infield defense.

In the last week of July, the GMs discussed the Sox sending Garciaparra and Lowe to the Cubs for Clement, shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and prospects. But late in the month Epstein's interest in Clement vanished. First, he decided that defense was vital, and a tighter infield might help Lowe save his season. Second, Clement, who had only two games of playoff experience, might not blend into a new rotation in a city as potentially hostile as Boston.

"We made the trade for infield defense, and part of the reason was to help Derek," Epstein said. "He won three clinching games. And we thought Matt would be better joining the organization if he had a chance to get used to it and work with our catchers. That's exactly what's happening with Jason [Varitek]. I think it worked out best for everyone."

Said Varitek, "The guy really wants to be good, he really wants to help this team win, and that's a very nice thing to see. He's probably getting to that point where he's ready to settle in. Period."

Twists and turns Clement had some unusual entries on his resume as he meandered toward a big-time free agent deal. He threw just 27 innings in his high school career. He pitched parts of four seasons in A ball. ("I got my letterman's jacket with the Padres minicamp," he joked.) Twice he was traded with only days to go in spring training.

On March 28, 2001, San Diego general manager Kevin Towers packaged Clement to Florida in a deal that netted outfielder Mark Kotsay.

"Kevin ran out of patience to a certain extent with Matt, Matt's command, not that he didn't think he was a good pitcher," Epstein said. "He had something in Kotsay that could help the team immediately. Matt was a No. 1 to No. 5, depending on his stuff."

Clement packed up, moved to South Florida, and went 9-10 with a 5.05 ERA. Days before the ensuing season, on March 27, 2002, Florida traded Clement and Antonio Alfonseca to the Cubs in a deal that netted the Marlins Julian Tavarez and prospects, among them Dontrelle Willis. Clement packed up the house he'd rented for himself and his pregnant wife, Heather, and moved to Chicago.

Clement's 2004 season, his third in Chicago, could be viewed as a three-act play.

Act 1, character introduction and setup: Clement, healthy and at ease, began the season 5-1 with a 2.29 ERA.

Act 2, complications, conflict, reversal of fortune: In 16 starts between May 12 and July 31, Clement went just 3-9 despite a 3.31 ERA. In seven of those 16 games the Cubs scored two or fewer runs, including four shutouts.

"Then he had a couple bad outings down the stretch and everybody said he's kind of lost it," said Chicago righthander Mark Prior, who along with Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux, and Clement formed one of baseball's elite rotations.

Act 3, resolution: Between Aug. 1 and the end of the season, Clement -- under the stress of meager offensive help, a near trade, an again-pregnant wife, the approaching expiration of his contract, and a pennant race -- went 1-3 with a 6.10 ERA in eight appearances. He couldn't make it out of the third inning Sept. 7 against Montreal or Sept. 20 vs. Florida.

He'd strained a trapezius muscle -- the one that runs between the neck and shoulder -- and attempted to pitch through it. In his six-year professional career, he'd missed just one start -- in September 2001 when struck on the wrist by a Brian Jordan line drive. He wasn't about to sit now.

But with two appearances still scheduled, Cubs manager Dusty Baker gave Clement's rotation spot to Glendon Rusch.

"He tried to pitch through it, where a lot of guys wouldn't pitch through it," Baker said. "When you're around somebody enough, you can tell something wasn't right."

Hendry found the neck injury less of a reason for lifting Clement.

"He wasn't pitching good, Rusch was dealing," Hendry said. "You've got no time for feelings. The three years we had him, he pitched good for 2 1/2. He faded at the end."

Clement didn't want to hear any of that, and he especially didn't want to hear through the media, which is how he found out.

"That made it really tough, having a reporter walk up and say, `Hey, you're not pitching your next start, how do you feel about it?' " said Clement, though he doesn't fault Baker for the leaked information. "If I thought they did it on purpose, I might have made a bigger deal out of it, and maybe they did, but I honestly believe it was a mistake."

"I don't know how a reporter got it," said Baker.

Frustrating finish The Cubs immediately won four in a row, then lost seven of nine and missed the playoffs by 3 games. Clement didn't appear in any of those 13 games. Rusch, meanwhile, pitched 12 1/3 innings and allowed just two earned runs in two starts.

"It still bothers me how the season ended," Clement said. "What bothers me most -- and this isn't against anybody there -- I felt that because of me and many others we were in the position we were at least to have a chance with all the injuries we had. To not be able to help get us in or pitch when it mattered at the very, very end, that hurt me as a competitor."

It gnaws at Clement because he combined durability and effectiveness last season better than any Cubs starter not named Zambrano. Clement made eight more starts than Wood, pitched 62 1/3 more innings than Prior, and posted an ERA (3.68) lower than Maddux's (4.02).

"He pitched as strong as any of us the last three years," Prior said. "I think more than anything what hurt him about getting bounced from the rotation was the way it was handled. He felt he wasn't respected."

His season done, Clement looked up at a 9-13 record and a 3.68 ERA.

"I think I held it together for a while," he said, "and at the end it got a little frustrating."

The Cubs averaged 3.97 runs in his starts. Conversely, the Sox gave Curt Schilling an American League-best 7.54, and Lowe the league's next-highest total at 7.29.

In 16 of Clement's 30 starts, the Cubs scored three runs or fewer. They plated 27 total runs in those 16 games, in which he went 1-13 with a 4.24 ERA.

In 14 starts in which the club managed more than three runs, he was 8-0 with a 3.08 ERA

"It's nobody's fault," Clement said. "I tell myself, `I have to learn how to win some of those games, 1-0.' "

The end of Clement's career in Chicago coincided with the birth of his second son, Madden. His wife went into preterm labor with both of the couple's boys, Mattix and Madden. Madden, who wasn't due until Nov. 11, 2004, arrived six weeks early, just after Clement's demotion. He briefly left the team to be with his wife.

"He was our tough-luck guy last year," Baker said.

A new home The Cubs' willingness to move Clement at the deadline reinforced what he'd felt for a while.

"I knew in spring training last year I wasn't going to be back there," Clement said. "If you look at it, you have Wood, Prior, Zambrano, who all came through the organization. They're all young, they're all talented. Those three are locks, and they should be. They had an opportunity to bring somebody in like Maddux who's worth every dime they give him and more, even if he pitches average, and average for him is 15 wins.

"A team that's going to have holes, especially with the bullpen situation and the Sammy [Sosa] situation . . . isn't going to spend that much money on their rotation. And they have good prospects. I think I could have gone 25-0 last year and I wouldn't have been in their plans for this year."

Hendry basically confirmed that.

"Once I did Greg, there really wasn't any way, with what we have and what we got coming, that I was going to invest $20 million," Hendry said. "From my end of it, there's no hard feelings. I don't know what he says about us."

Clement is bitter toward Hendry but will miss the friendships he formed at Wrigley and the fandom that embraced him. He enjoyed Baker, and Baker enjoyed him. "I love Matty," Baker said. "He's one of the best guys I've ever been around. He ain't got a fake bone in his body."

Prior and Wood, the Cubs' No. 1 and No. 2 starters, also rank as Clement's No. 1 and No. 2 friends in baseball. He speaks to Prior regularly.

"The fans there, they went so far beyond how anybody had ever treated me," said Clement, who remembers the fans wearing stick-on hair patches on their chins the days that he pitched, a tribute to his tiny goatee. "Nobody really cared about me in the past. The one thing I know, I know Dusty and I know Larry [Rothschild, pitching coach] and I know the fans appreciate what I did there. Whether anybody else does, I don't want to say I don't care, but you walk away.

"It was cool, I went from Florida, [A.J.] Burnett, [Josh] Beckett, [Brad] Penny to Chicago with Wood, Prior, Zambrano, Maddux. I've seen some unbelievable arms, some unbelievable stuff. I kept telling Mark that last year: `I'll be bringing Mattix down to PNC [Park in Pittsburgh] to watch you pitch when I'm gray and old.'

Clement, who is now 30, doesn't feel that old, especially when he looks around the Sox clubhouse.

"We're relying on a 38-year-old, a 42-year-old, another 38-year-old," Varitek said. "I would call him young."

And restless.

At age 30, he wants his dazzling statistics -- 9.45 strikeouts per nine innings last season and a .229 batting average against -- to translate to wins.

"Matt Clement has probably the most electric stuff on our staff, period," said Kevin Millar, Clement's teammate in 2001 in Florida. "He has, for a righthander, as nasty of a sinker as you're going to find. And probably one of the best sliders in baseball. That's the honest-to-God truth.

"Now, you've got to take that to the next level. You're coming here, and this is East Coast baseball now. You're not pitching for the Padres, you're not pitching for the Marlins, you're not pitching for the Lovable Losers. [Chicago] is a great place to play, a great city. You're coming here and you've got to win and you've got to beat the Yankees. That's what it's about when you put on a Red Sox uniform."

Gordon Edes of the Globe staff contributed to this story from Scottsdale, Ariz.

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