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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Scarred '05 season is behind Clement

Matt Clement gave up two hits and no runs in his first spring training start against the Dodgers.
Matt Clement gave up two hits and no runs in his first spring training start against the Dodgers. (AP Photo)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The last time Red Sox fans saw Matt Clement, they had to cover their eyes.

It was ugly. Clement got the ball for the first game of the 2005 Division Series against the White Sox in Chicago and looked like a man who'd rather be working alongside Johnny from Burger King. He consistently shook off Jason Varitek, and it appeared he didn't want to throw the ball in the direction of home plate. He hit two of the first three batters he faced and surrendered five runs in the first inning. He was pulled with one out in the fourth after giving up seven hits (three homers) and eight earned runs. The Red Sox lost, 14-2, and eventually were swept.

''I have no excuses," Clement said after the game. ''I have no reason. I pitched bad. It was no fun."

It was a hurtful ending to Clement's first season in Boston. Signed as a free agent after the Sox failed to sign Pedro Martínez, Carl Pavano, and Brad Radke, Clement was an All-Star in the first half of 2005. He was 6-0 out of the gate and had a 3.06 ERA in his first 11 starts. He pitched a shutout inning in the All-Star Game at Detroit, but everything changed two weeks later when he was drilled in the side of the head by a line drive off the bat of Tampa's Carl Crawford.

It was the most frightening moment of the Red Sox season, and teammates prayed for Clement when he was taken to a nearby hospital. Incredibly, he did not go on the disabled list and was back on the mound Aug. 4. He was 3-4 with a 5.72 ERA in his last 14 starts. Opponents hit .264 off him after the injury.

Clement did not make excuses, but he'll tell you that his strength was sapped after he was hit by the ball. Red Sox Nation worried about him when it came time for the first round of the playoffs against Chicago. One year earlier, Clement had pitched himself out of the Cubs rotation heading into the playoffs. However, because the Sox needed all of their weapons during the final weekend of 2005 against the Yankees, Clement wound up getting the ball for Game 1. It was Galehouse-esque.

The tall, veteran righty made his first appearance of the spring against big league hitters yesterday and threw four shutout innings against the Dodgers in City of Palms Park. He gave up two hits, no walks, and fanned three. He said he liked the way he threw his sinker, a pitch he largely ignored last year.

''That's as good as I've thrown my sinker since my first couple of years with the Cubs," said Clement. ''It's a pitch I pretty much forgot about, although it got me hit in the head once last year."

Asked to characterize how the line drive off the noggin affected him, Clement said, ''I think it took a lot of my stamina. It's not like I was afraid to go back out there. It's like a car wreck, you never forget it, but for me it became hard to build up my strength. I don't use it as an excuse, and I never will. It happened. I feel like I'm over it, but it's something that's not going to leave your mind."

And the playoff calamity?

''You never want to leave a bad impression," he said. ''You never want to leave on a bad note. It wasn't fun, but it's not something I dwell on, because if you dwell on it, you'll never get over it. There have been years when I finished good and years when I finished bad. I hate to finish bad, but the worst part was that I felt like I let the team down. That hurts the most, but you have to be a man about it. I stunk in that game."

Still, this is a pitcher who went 13-6 and ate up 191 innings in his first year with the Red Sox. Clement is pretty reliable. He has made 30 or more starts in each of his seven big league seasons, winning no fewer than nine games every season. He's part of the Sox' strong rotation -- unless he's traded.

Theo Epstein won't talk about trade discussions, but it's no secret the Sox have explored deals for Clement. Epstein always has been lukewarm about the righty. Theo was in San Diego when Clement came up through the Padres system and broke into the big leagues in 1998. Theo turned down a Clement-for-Derek Lowe offer at the same time he traded Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs in 2004. Epstein knew Lowe was a better bet down the stretch that year, and his instincts produced a World Series winner.

''I've gotten traded on the last day of spring training twice," said Clement. ''But I'm planning on making 30-40 starts, and if they're going to trade me, they're going to trade me.

''I want to be a Red Sox. I love the passion of the fans in Boston. But if it doesn't work out that way, there's nothing I can do about it. Usually, when you hear your name a lot, you don't get traded."

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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