10/11/2003 2:22 AM ET
Traded pitchers go at it in Game 4
Marlins' Willis hosts Cubs' Clement at Pro Player
MIAMI -- It was the classic "trade that helped both teams." But Saturday night everyone will find out which team was helped more in the 2003 NLCS.
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
On March 27, 2002, the Chicago Cubs, needing a closer and looking for additional depth in their rotation, picked up reliever Antonio Alfonseca and starter Matt Clement from the Florida Marlins in exchange for pitcher Julian Tavarez and three minor-league pitchers. Fortunately for the Marlins, and unfortunately for the Cubs, one of those three was Dontrelle Willis, who turned out to be "D-Train."
Willis has played a major role not only in reviving the Marlins, but in reviving fan interest in the Marlins. Willis, 21, was called up to the Marlins on May 9. From May 26 to June 25 he won seven consecutive starts. That kind of performance, combined with a quirky, singular delivery, separated him from the rest of the pitching pack and also made him a draw in South Florida. He came to earth a bit in the second half, but he still finished 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA. He is considered to be one of the three leading candidates for National League Rookie of the Year.
And now, he gets the call in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series and the call couldn't be more important. The Marlins need a victory here to get back to even. That's enough of a story line in itself, but the plot thickens. The mound opponent, for Willis, fittingly enough, will be Clement.
As far as the Cubs' half of the trade, Clement carries the load. Alfonseca was injured in Spring Training this year, but by the time he came back, Joe Borowski had seized the closer role and wouldn't let go. Alfonseca subsequently put up a 5.83 ERA and he has been one of the reasons that the Cubs bullpen is not as deep as they hoped.
But Clement, 29, has been fine. He's never going to get the attention that Mark Prior and Kerry Wood receive. He's probably not even going to get the attention that Carlos Zambrano receives. But overall he has been no worse than competent and sometimes he has been much better than that, throwing, for instance, a two-hit shutout against San Francisco on July 29. He finished 14-12 with a 4.11 ERA. The 14 victories represent a career high.
Both of the principals in the trade and the Game 4 starting roles deny any extra motivation because of the trade. You believe them because no extra motivation is needed.
"There's enough motivation here already," Clement said. "We're in the playoffs, we're trying to get to the World Series. I'm motivated because I want to win, not motivated because I'm playing against the Marlins or pitching against a guy who was in a trade for me or anything else like that."
Both pitchers, while they might have been initially surprised by the trade, are now perfectly content about the way things have worked out.
"The trade, you know, it was kind of weird how it happened," Willis said. "It was four days before Spring Training broke. Everyone kind of got their teams together and knew where they were going as far as the minor leagues. My first thought was just, 'Why me? What did I do wrong?' But that's just me being naive to the system. It's a business as well as it is a game. Unfortunately, I had to part with the team I was drafted with. But it played out well. I'm happy to be a Marlin and hopefully I'm a Marlin for a long time."
"I think it (the trade) has been great for Dontrelle and myself," Clement said. "He's on a team where he brought baseball back to life down here, which is great. I commend him. I think it's worked out great for both of us, which is how trades should go.
"Obviously, if you want to grade the trade, the Marlins might be ahead, because he's so young and he's left-handed. I think that both teams got quality out of what happened."
The burden on Clement in this one is that the Cubs are 5-0 in this postseason in games started by Wood or Prior. They are 0-3 in games started by anybody else, including Clement. The Cubs could theoretically win everything while getting victories only in Wood and Prior starts. But a victory by some other starter would leave them a more comfortable margin for error.
Still, the burden on the rookie left-hander will be greater. Dontrelle Willis is what stands now between the Marlins and a 1-3 deficit in a best-of-seven series. Against a Cubs team that has scored 25 runs in the first three games of the NLCS, a very strong start from the D-Train seems very much like a necessity.
Mike Bauman is the national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.