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ON BASEBALL

A true sense of relief

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Mike Reilly, who has been a major league umpire for 28 years, was crouched behind Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek when Matt Clement, who was pitching from the stretch because the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had two men on base, threw the 38th and final pitch he would deliver last night. Carl Crawford, Tampa Bay's lithe and muscular left fielder poised in the lefthanded batter's box, whipped his bat through the strike zone, and sent a line drive hurtling toward Clement.

''The crack of the bat was loud," Reilly said. ''The sound of the ball hitting his head was just as loud."

Clement fell to the ground, clutching his right ear as he rolled onto his left side, then didn't move. As medical personnel and players from both teams rushed to the mound, Bill Mueller, the Sox third baseman who has been one of Clement's closest friends since they shared Bible study as teammates on the Cubs, dropped to one knee near the front of the mound, his head bowed in prayer.

The ball? It had caromed all the way into short left field, where it was retrieved by Manny Ramirez, the Sox left fielder.

''One part of me," said Sox manager Terry Francona, ''wanted to be at the mound in a second. But there was another part of me that didn't.

''I was very relieved when he was coherent and speaking. He seemed to be aware of his surroundings. You go from one second caring about getting an out to the other where you're caring only about him."

Manny Delcarmen, the kid from Hyde Park taking in his first game as a big leaguer, watched the unfolding scene with disbelieving eyes. ''That was tough to see," he said, ''him being down and hoping he'd get up."

During the stoppage in play, Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, who was watching on TV in the clubhouse, retrieved Clement's cellphone from his locker and found the number to Clement's wife, Heather, who was watching on TV with the couple's 4-year-old son, Mattix, back in Boston. Francona came back to the clubhouse and called her.

''That's the kind of team this is," Wakefield said. ''We care about each other. I hope someone would do the same for me."

Varitek, the captain of this team and the man Clement has repeatedly credited for guiding him through what has been his most successful season in the major leagues, grabbed Clement's hand as the pitcher, eyes open but his head immobolized, was lifted onto a stretcher.

Of course, Varitek said, he had a flashback.

''All of us have been through Bryce Florie," Varitek said. ''You can't help not to [think of that]."

Florie was the Red Sox pitcher who five years ago, on Sept. 8, 2000, in Fenway Park, was struck flush in the face by a line drive hit by Ryan Thompson, a reserve outfielder on the New York Yankees. The force of that blow shattered bones in Florie's face and caused severe damage to his right eye. Even after multiple surgeries, Florie never regained full vision in his eye and did not pitch in the major leagues after the 2001 season.

Imagine the relief, then, when some of Clement's teammates, Varitek included, gathered in a trainer's room while physical therapist Chris Correnti placed a call to the pitcher, who was being held overnight at nearby Bayfront Medical Center, less than a half-mile away.

''[Kevin] Millar had the best line," umpire Reilly said. ''He said if the ball had hit him in the head it would have gone out of the stadium."

Dr. Thomas Gill, the team's medical director monitoring the situation in Boston, reported that a CAT scan performed on Clement had come back negative. ''Matt never lost consciousness and is in good spirits," Gill said. ''He appears to be doing well, but will stay in the hospital overnight for precautionary purposes, and will be reevaluated in the morning."

Clement, who has rarely missed a start in his big-league career, making 30 or more in each of his first six seasons, may miss a turn. It's possible he won't, despite the terror of the moment.

The Sox' bigger loss came in the top of the same inning, the third, in which Clement was struck, as Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon strained an oblique (side) muscle taking a big swing and miss. Nixon said he hoped to avoid going on the disabled list, but strained obliques are one of the most nagging injuries a ballplayer can have. ''Maybe it will hang around the rest of the year," he conceded. ''But hopefully I can play through it."

Somehow, on a night they feared for their All-Star pitcher and lost their starting right fielder, the Sox endured and won the game, 10-9. Varitek hit a home run to draw them within a run in the ninth. Millar and John Olerud singled, and Mueller stroked a double in the right-field corner that scored the tying run. Olerud, running with screws in his surgically-repaired ankle, was cut down at the plate, as third base coach Dale Sveum, mindful that the Sox had run out of pitchers in the bullpen (Mike Timlin was unavailable and Bronson Arroyo would have been next), went for the win when the throw went over the first cutoff man.

''That's the world I live in," muttered Sveum about the slowest man on the team carrying its hopes in that situation.

But in the end, it was Johnny Damon's world. He made a leaping, game-saving catch in the bottom of the ninth, then hit the first pitch of the 10th for the go-ahead run.

Varitek doubled home another, which proved to be the winner in what the Sox captain conceded was one of the most emotional games in which he has ever played.

''It's so easy to say I'm proud of this team," Francona said. ''But tonight nothing came easy. Guys gave more tonight than they have."

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