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Clement Earning His Spot

The junior catcher, a probable first-round pick next week, has developed into one of USC's all-time bests.

June 03, 2005|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Jeff Clement knows the history. "Twelve national championships," he said. "The most players in the major leagues."

And he knows the names of the major league stars, past and present. Tom Seaver, Mark McGwire. Randy Johnson, Mark Prior, Barry Zito, Geoff Jenkins.

Clement came to USC because he wanted to be part of that lineage. And while he doesn't have a national title to show for it, a place in professional baseball could be just around the corner.

The junior catcher is expected to be selected in the first round of Tuesday's baseball draft -- possibly in the first 10 picks.

But first things first. What matters most to the easy-going left-handed-hitting slugger is today's game against Pepperdine in the opening round of the NCAA baseball regional at Blair Field in Long Beach.

While Coach Mike Gillespie counts Clement among the best players to come through USC, today marks Clement's first postseason game. If he can help it, there will be many more before he begins his professional career.

"I've been wanting to play in the postseason since I got here," Clement said. "Unfortunately, it didn't work out the first couple of seasons. ... This year has been completely different. Everyone got that feeling from Day 1 in the fall."

USC's 37-19 record is a 13-game improvement from last season and its best mark since 2001, when it went to the College World Series.

The improvement resulted in an at-large playoff berth after a two-year absence, the program's longest postseason drought since 1985-87, when Gillespie was just taking over from coach Rod Dedeaux.

USC was a break-even team at best in Clement's first two seasons. Despite his freshman-record 21 home runs, the Trojans were 28-28 his first season, and they were 24-32 last season when he had 10 homers with 43 runs batted in despite dealing with injury and illness.

"It makes this year sweeter," he said.

Clement is used to being a winner. At age 21, he is probably the most famous person in his hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa, where in 1996 he was a star on the city's team that reached the Little League World Series.

But his claim to greater fame came during his senior season at Marshalltown High, when he set a national high school record with 75 career home runs and led his team to the Iowa 4-A title.

His record chase drew national attention and he was the talk of the town, the local newspaper devoting an entire page to his record-breaking home run achievement.

Even then, Clement was always focused on the team, his father said.

"It was a big thing in the media but it was never a big deal to Jeff at all," Brad Clement said. "The only thing he was concerned with was winning."

Clement was drafted in the 12th round that summer, which he considered a "disappointment."

A natural power hitter, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound catcher has developed into more than a slugger at USC. He leads the Trojans with a .353 average, 71 hits, 13 homers and 48 runs batted in.

With the 44th home run of his career Sunday, Clement passed Eric Munson for third on the school's all-time list and is one behind Jenkins.

"The thing that jumps out is he's a left-handed-hitting catcher with power," one National League scout said. "The ball jumps off his bat. I've seen him do it with wood and there's no difference."

Clement is among five finalists for the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's top college player and he has earned All-American honors by USA Today and Collegiate Baseball magazine.

According to scouts, Clement's biggest improvement has come behind the plate. Once considered a below-average receiver, he has made great strides in his defense and has thrown out 41% of runners attempting to steal the last two seasons.

"There's no doubt that he was raw when he got here," Gillespie said. "I know that pro scouts felt he was a position-change guy and maybe he would wind up as a first baseman or a left fielder. But that's not what they think now."

Clement credits former USC catcher Jason Brown and former major league catcher Chad Kreuter, now the Trojans' director of baseball operations, with improving his receiving skills.

Kreuter favorably compares Clement to Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, saying, "Jason was not as polished defensively coming out [of Georgia Tech] as Jeff is now. Of course, Jason now is a finished product. But Jeff has soft hands and he has improved his time to second base on his throws."

Clement says Kreuter, a 16-year major league veteran, has helped prepare him for the pro game.

"Just to have someone like that to work with day in and day out definitely helps," Clement said.

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