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Clement feels he's getting close

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Sometimes you get so caught up in pennant races and the ups and downs of a 162-game schedule that you forget the stories of perseverance and struggle that are going on in places like Fort Myers, Fla. That's where Matt Clement has lived, outside the lines, for almost a year.

He has been with the Red Sox here the past two days, going about his workouts, pitching a side session, and preparing for the most exciting part of this nearly 12-month ordeal of relearning how to pitch, with a reconstructed shoulder.

He was dripping wet with sweat, making his blue Red Sox T-shirt a shade darker, as he made his way through the Boston clubhouse and stopped to talk, with a smile from ear to ear. He understands what was lost when the wear and tear of eight major league seasons made his right shoulder bark and growl with a pain that made it quite clear the shoulder as he knew it was gone.

"I just feel that I'm ready to pitch to hitters," said Clement, who turned 33 last week. "I threw 50 pitches the other day, and I remember last year when my shoulder was bothering me, if I'd throw 120 pitches in a game, the next day I could barely lift it.

"The day after I threw 50 pitches, I was ready to throw the very next day. I didn't, because I'm following a program, but I felt good enough to do it, and that really excited me."

Say what you want about Clement -- who was signed after the Sox lost both Pedro Martínez and Derek Lowe -- but he's a professional pitcher who had made 30 or more starts in seven seasons. A former Padre, Marlin, and Cub, he was on a staff in Chicago with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, who also experienced multiple surgeries and time on the disabled list. He went 13-6 with a 4.57 ERA in 2005, pitching very well before he struggled in the second half of the season.

He avoided phone calls last offseason because he was bitter about the way he was portrayed in the media, as an injury-prone guy with a fragile psyche. All along, he had a horrible-looking shoulder with a torn labrum and rotator cuff, among other things.

There were whispers that Clement might never pitch again, but the righthander decided that he was going to prove everybody wrong. He stuck to a grueling regimen of rehabbing the shoulder and basically learning to pitch again.

He started with the most basic of functions -- gripping a ball -- then went to throwing it softly, to playing catch, to throwing from X number of feet on flat ground and then gradually increasing the distance. He conquered every step and he was always considered ahead of the schedule doctors had projected after he underwent the surgery last Sept. 26.

If anything, the Red Sox have had to hold Clement back from doing too much. So if anyone thinks there isn't any grit in Clement, all you had to do was walk in his shoes for the last year. The determination he has shown to pitch again has been off the charts.

Calling it "the toughest thing I've ever done," Clement sounds like a kid learning to ride a two-wheeler for the first time.

"There was only one day when I haven't been upbeat and positive," Clement said. "That was the day I heard that I needed the surgery. After that, I just decided that I was going to go through this and go through the program and that I could pitch at a high level in the major leagues again. I didn't think there was going to be any other way.

"I've had the tremendous support of my family, who have been down here with me and giving me the determination and the enthusiasm I need to pull this off. It's something I want to do for my family, for myself, because I love the game so much and I love competing and being out there in a pennant race."

He realizes that the larger the lead the Sox have in the standings, the more likely it is that he will pitch in a major league game this season. Either way, Clement isn't fretting.

He has reached the threshold of major league baseball again, and whether or not he gets to pitch again for Boston, he will at least enter the offseason as a free agent ready to show everyone he can compete.

"If I get to pitch, great, if not, I understand the problems with scheduling and that the minor league season is just about over. But all I know is I've reached that point where I'm just excited about getting a chance to go out there and pitch in a game again.

"If that first week of September is too soon, that's fine. I could go out and throw another side session and they might say, 'You know something, you're ready to go.' If that happens, great. If it doesn't happen, I know I'm there."

Clement, whose wife Heather is expecting their third child, said he has heard nothing from the Red Sox concerning the future, but he never expected it. He knew once he had the surgery there was the possibility that he had thrown his last pitch for the Red Sox. With Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz coming up, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, and likely Tim Wakefield returning, there may be no room.

He will likely join the pool of rehabbing starters like Baltimore's Kris Benson, out there for teams to audition, and he might get a chance to make one out of spring training.

Which is all Clement is asking for. One thing he has is an appreciation of what he lost, and he knows he has expended the blood, sweat, and tears to get it back. Toeing the rubber in a major league game is a moment he can't wait to savor.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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