On a sunny, breezy afternoon at Fenway Park, where 35,060 fans witnessed Jason Varitek's first career grand slam, a gutsy performance by Edgar Renteria that included three hits and four RBIs just hours after a painful outfield collision with Manny Ramirez, and a Sox offense that rebounded from a 5-0 deficit to beat the Kansas City Royals, 11-9, for their eighth straight win, the story yesterday remained Matt Clement.
The focus was on Clement, not only because he was making his first start since being hit in the head with a Carl Crawford liner July 26 in Tampa, but because the first-half ace of the Sox staff is now fighting to stay No. 1.
While Clement's first-half numbers were competitive with any of the top righthanders in baseball, his performances after the All-Star break beg the question of whether he'll continue to be that pitcher.
Clement got the win yesterday, improving to 11-3, a record certainly indicative of an ace, but his ERA climbed to 4.67, as he allowed six runs on five hits and four walks in five innings, with five strikeouts.
There was a line drive in the fifth inning that was in Clement's direction, but it never got too close to him.
''This is the first time I thought about it," Clement said. ''Maybe naturally I flinched, but maybe I would have flinched before this happened. I was just trying to get through the fifth inning at that point. Maybe that was a good thing that it didn't even register in my brain. Honestly, I haven't been worried about it."
Clement's post-All-Star break ERA with the Cubs last season was 5.09. His post-All-Star break ERA this season, in four starts, is 10.69. Going back six starts, Clement is 2-2 with a 9.20 ERA.
With Curt Schilling, who earned his eighth save yesterday, still pitching at the back of the bullpen, the Sox, who won the World Series last year in large part because they had two aces (Schilling and Pedro Martinez) and a dominating closer (Keith Foulke), might still be void of an ace.
Unless Clement can rediscover his first-half effectiveness.
''I put that burden on myself regardless of where I am as a number," Clement said. ''I think the starting rotation has been pretty cool about the whole thing. ''Every time one of us is down, there's three or four of us pounding away and getting wins. Boomer [David Wells] has pitched so well since he's come off the DL dating way back to when he hurt his foot. Bronson [Arroyo] and Wake [Tim Wakefield] and Wade [Miller], we've all been able to keep this thing together. I don't think that any of us think of ourselves as a No. 1 or a No. 5."
Clement hopes his struggles are behind him.
''It was a strange game today and the fact is a game like this can put you where you want to be," he said. ''I felt I was throwing the ball pretty well in the Tampa game. That was probably the best stuff I've had in a while. The White Sox game [July 21], I battled and they battled back against us. And really I haven't had many starts since the All-Star game. The Yankee game [July 16] was the down point since the All-Star break, and I'm looking forward to getting back out there on a regular routine."
Clement walked the bases loaded in the third and then hit Emil Brown with a pitch to force home a run. He then allowed a three-run double to Terrence Long. That was after giving up a first-inning run when Ruben Gotay doubled and scored on Matt Stairs's single.
Meanwhile, Royals starter D.J. Carrasco produced an odd pitching line: 3 2/3 innings, five runs, one earned, one hit, seven walks, and four strikeouts. He threw 79 pitches, 40 of which were balls.
Varitek's first grand slam in his 120th career bases-loaded at-bat left only Royals manager Buddy Bell's son, David, who plays for the Phillies, with a longer drought (123 at-bats without a slam).
The Sox scored eight runs in the fourth, their largest single-inning output of the season, when the Royals walked five, committed two errors, and allowed only two hits -- Renteria's double and Varitek's slam on a 2-and-0 pitch from Leo Nunez, who had walked David Ortiz (intentionally) and Roberto Petagine, who made his Sox debut.
The Sox ended up needing single runs in the fifth, to make it 10-6, and in the eighth, to make it 11-8, on RBI singles by Damon and Varitek, respectively.
Schilling came on and surrendered a solo home run to Mike Sweeney in the ninth, after Chad Bradford had pitched two scoreless innings. Schilling retired the next three batters, two on strikeouts, and is now 2-1 with eight saves in his last 13 outings. He's recorded a save in six of Boston's last seven wins.
''I think we took big steps today toward being a team," Sox manager Terry Francona said. ''We've had a lot of changes, but we've had guys open their arms and accept new guys."