PITTSBURGH -- The most recent pitcher to win a playoff game for the Chicago Cubs is now a high school boys basketball coach in the suburbs of Pittsburgh.
Yes, Matt Clement, who won Game 4 of the 2003 National League Championship Series to put the Cubs up 3-1, is the latest Cub to win a postseason game. There's a trivia question to ask someone at the bar before Cubs ace Jake Arrieta starts Wednesday night's wild-card game against the Pirates at PNC Park.
Clement now coaches hoops at his alma mater, Butler Senior High School. He helps with the baseball teams and also cohosts a sports radio show ("The Sports Soundoff") in Butler, Pennsylvania, where he grew up and where he is raising his four kids, who range from 4 to 12 years old.
Clement, 41, pitched for the Cubs in 2003 and 2004, back when the team seemed destined to achieve the impossible -- only to fail again in a completely unique fashion.
Although he likes the Pirates -- and is in awe of their ace, Gerrit Cole, and respectful of the front-office and coaching staffs that turned the Pirates around -- Clement doesn't mind making some enemies in Buccos country on his radio show.
“It started last September,” he said in a phone conversation. “I caught a lot of crap from a lot of my friends when I said, ‘Listen, sooner than you all think, the Cubs are going to be the team in the division.’”
Clement, who most recently pitched in the majors in 2006 and officially retired in 2009, speaks with a noticeable Pittsburgh accent, “the slurred argot of the community,” as Frank Deford once wrote.
Clement said he will root for whichever team wins Wednesday's one-game wild-card playoff. But he would be glad to be taken out of the record book as the most recent Cub to win a playoff game.
Until recently, he didn’t even realize he held that distinction.
“I was shocked,” he said. “My son’s tutor texted me something about the Cubs-Pirates playing Wednesday and 'I hope you can continue to be the last guy to win a playoff game for the Cubs.' I didn’t catch what she said at first.”
He turned to Google and realized the Cubs hadn't won a game in their past two playoff appearances. Then, on Monday, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette high school sportswriter tweeted the fact, and I saw it.
“Your email came like 30 seconds after someone sent me the tweet,” Clement said.
Clement’s old team has lost nine straight postseason games since the right-hander's Oct. 11, 2003, start against the Miami Marlins at Pro Player Stadium.
Arrieta, who is even better than Clement's old rotation mate, Mark Prior, is trying to end that drought. Clement thinks Arrieta is just the guy to do it.
In August, Clement took his kids to Wrigley Field. They got the run of the place, thanks to his remaining connections, such as clubhouse manager Tom “Otis” Hellman, coach Eric Hinske, former hitting coach Bill Mueller and strength coach Tim Buss. His kids fell in love with the park and the team and went home with Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez jerseys. Clement found himself in awe of Arrieta.
“I’m hanging out in Bussy’s room, B.S.-ing with him,” Clement said. “I had caught a couple of Arrieta games. I didn’t realize where he’d come from, but I knew he [was] pitching really good and starting to come on. So I’m talking to guys while he was working out, and I’m thinking: 'Holy crap, this guy is for real. He’s going at it in there.'”
While his kids played, Clement and Buss left the room to watch batting practice, and Clement lingered over the bullpen, where Arrieta was throwing his side session.
Reporters had buttered up Clement by telling him he looked like he could still pitch. He still throws with his older sons, who always ask to see his breaking stuff. Clement said he knew he was done when he retired, but like a lot of ex-pitchers, his arm felt live in retirement when he threw with his kids, who play competitive travel baseball and basketball. Clement could still dream about an unlikely comeback -- until he saw that Arrieta side session. Clement stood behind the netting as Arrieta’s upper-90s pitches darted across the plate.
“I was thinking my arm does feel good, but then watching him throw, man, I knew I can’t come close to that,” he said. “I’m not in his atmosphere. I never was in that atmosphere when I was playing.”
Clement said he was in a similar state of awe pitching with Kerry Wood and Prior in their abbreviated primes. Along with Carlos Zambrano, those four were a formidable playoff rotation. But it wasn’t meant to last. The disappointment of 2003 and the failures of 2004, when the Cubs won more games in the regular season but collapsed down the stretch, are a stark reminder of how quickly a playoff window can close.
What does Clement remember about his 2003 playoff start? Well, for one thing, he was uncomfortable.
“The night before I pitched, Kerry Wood hit two or three people, and it was mayhem,” he said. “I was notorious for leading the league in hit batsmen and walks -- not on purpose. I just had a lot of movement, and I hit a lot of people. So I’m sitting at home thinking, ‘This is going to turn into a complete melee. I’m going to run one in on someone -- not on purpose -- and tomorrow is going to be interesting.’”
Sure enough, Haren tried to bunt, and Clement hit him with a back-up slider. Haren retaliated with a ball in Clement’s right calf, which set off fireworks between the teams and their managers. Clement wasn’t angry; he knew it was coming. But his calf knotted up, he tried to pitch through it, and he injured his groin for the rest of the season in the process. He pitched in the playoff game with a wrapped groin.
“My mechanics were totally different because of that,” he said. “I had to grind away that game. I [had] never pitched with a wrapped anything before.”
Clement lasted 7 2/3 innings and gave up three runs on five hits and two walks. He logged only three strikeouts. The hero of that game was current Pirate Aramis Ramirez, who hit two homers, including a first-inning grand slam, and drove in six runs.
Clement, like every Cub on that team, thought they were headed to the World Series with Zambrano, Prior and Wood on tap to pitch. But you know what happened next.
"Realistically, the Marlins just got hot. Josh Beckett got extremely hot," Clement said.
Clement wasn't nearly as fortunate in his next playoff appearance. Pitching for Theo Epstein’s Boston Red Sox, he started Game 1 of the 2005 ALDS against the White Sox and got rocked for three homers in a 14-2 loss.
Clement said he’ll watch Wednesday's game from home with his kids. Mattix, who turns 13 next week, had his first birthday party in a Miami area hotel the day before Clement’s start in 2003. Madden is 10, and Mavrik is 7. Clement's daughter, Mallie, is 4. His boys have plenty of Pirates gear, he said, but they have a soft spot for the Cubs. They can name both lineups.
“The kids are rooting for the Cubs after their trip to Wrigley,” he said. “We’re not going to the game. It’s going to be too crazy down there [at PNC Park]. My kids would want to wear Rizzo jerseys. I’ve been to enough Steelers games -- watching fans get the crap kicked out of them for wearing another team’s colors.”
Clement isn’t fixated on what the Cubs didn’t do in the three games after his start, but he remains “bummed” that he wasn’t on a Cubs team that won the World Series. He said nothing in his career could hold a candle to the feeling of a standing ovation as he walked off the field at Wrigley during the pennant race. When he saw it happen to Arrieta late this season, Clement could remember what it was like to have that kind of civic joy wash over him.
“It would be cool to be in that position, to be on that team for the city of Chicago,” he said. “I love Chicago. I loved being a Cub.”