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Meredith blossoms out West after struggles in Boston

Posted: Friday September 29, 2006 2:27PM; Updated: Friday September 29, 2006 2:27PM
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An afterthought in the Doug Mirabelli-Josh Bard trade, reliever Cla Meredith has solidified the Padres' bullpen.
An afterthought in the Doug Mirabelli-Josh Bard trade, reliever Cla Meredith has solidified the Padres' bullpen.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

By George Dohrmann, SI.com

Shortly after the San Diego Padres called up right-hander Cla Meredith from the minors, he saw a somewhat familiar face walking through the clubhouse. He mustered the courage to approach him, thinking, "Wow, that's Trevor Hoffman."

Meredith introduced himself and offered his hand and said how glad he was to meet him. It was the proper introduction for a rookie to make, but there was one problem:

It wasn't Trevor Hoffman.

"I shook his brother's hand," Meredith says. "I went up to [the Padres third base coach] Glenn and said, 'Nice to meet you' and all that. Then later, Trevor walked through the clubhouse and I figured it out. I'm not gonna lie, I was embarrassed."

Other than that one rookie blunder, Meredith, 23, has been almost flawless in more than two months in San Diego's bullpen. He is 5-1 with a ridiculously low 0.91 ERA in 44 games this season. He went 33 2/3 consecutive innings without giving up a run, a franchise record, and along with Hoffman and Scott Linebrink has given the Padres a devastating trio to finish off games.

"We've been in a lot of close games and our bullpen has saved us," Padres manager Bruce Bochy says. "Cla has been a big part of that."

Meredith's path to the big leagues began when his high school coach in Richmond, Va. -- former Padres outfielder Johnny Grubb -- recommended him to the coaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. Meredith was a catcher in high school who pitched occasionally his senior year, but Grubb saw his potential. He called Paul Keyes, the coach at VCU, who made Meredith the last member of his recruiting class.

Keyes remembers Meredith, whose first name is Olise but who goes by Cla (pronounced Clay), as "a bit of a renegade" when he arrived on campus in 2002. "It took time for him to conform," Keyes says. But he was almost an instant success after he lowered his arm angle to it's the current submarine level and fine-tuned his sinking fastball. He had a school-record 1.19 ERA in 2003 and in 2004 was selected in the sixth round by the Boston Red Sox.

Only Oakland A's closer Hudson Street made it to the majors quicker, but Meredith's debut last season for the pitching-starved Red Sox was a disaster. On May 8, 2005, he entered a 2-2 game against Seattle with a runner on second base. Meredith walked two batters and then gave up a grand slam to Richie Sexson that wrapped just inside the Pesky Pole. He gave up runs in two more appearances before being shipped back to the minors with a 27.00 ERA.

He struggled more upon his return to Triple-A Pawtucket and the Red Sox seemed to lose faith in him. Almost a year later, he was shipped to San Diego along with catch Josh Bard, an afterthought in the deal that returned Doug Mirabelli to Boston so he could catch Tim Wakefield's knuckleball.

"Boston rushed him a little bit and then he gave up that home run around the foul pole," says Keyes. "Had that ball stayed foul, he probably would have felt more comfortable with the team and felt he fit in better and had more success. I don't think anybody in Boston knew how good he could be."

After the trade to San Diego, Meredith thrived, which Keyes credits to his ability to always "stay in the present," and the devastating sink of his fastball, which rarely tops 90. During his record scoreless innings streak, Meredith reminded himself to "keep it simple," to concentrate on the batter he faced rather than look at the larger scenario.

"It's a lot of luck," Meredith says. "But you can work on throwing strikes and getting ahead of hitters. You can limit extra base hits. If you give up a leadoff double you are pretty much screwed. You also have to have a lot of help. I've had more than one piss-rod yanked right at somebody."

Red Sox fans now look at their team's depleted bullpen and wonder if they turned on Meredith too quickly, and GM Theo Epstein has admitted letting Meredith go might haunt the team.

"That's how it is in Boston, they have to find a scapegoat," Meredith says. "But the trade certainly has worked out for the Padres. Josh is happy, and I am happy. I love San Diego. It fits me."