Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Slugger Matt Clark hitting stride with Acereros

When massive (6'5" and 230 pounds) Matt Clark signed with Monclova, the former NCAA home run leader was expected to add light-tower power to the middle of the Acereros batting order.  Thus far, the former LSU star and one-time U.S. National Teamer has not disappointed.

Clark belted three homers Sunday in Monclova's 13-12 loss to Monterrey in 12 innings before nearly 22,000 spectators at Estadio Monterrey, bringing his season total to nine longballs (tied for third in the Mexican League with Aguascalientes' Jesse Castillo and Alex Liddi of Tijuana).  Two of those homers were launched in the first and third innings against Monterrey starter Javier Solano, one of Mexico's top pitchers who'd won his last three starts.  Clark ended up with six RBIs on the day, with half of them accounted for via that three-run bomb in the initial entrada.  A risk/reward type of batter, Clark also struck out in his three other plate appearances.  He's now batting .317 and his 41 RBIs are tied for second with Tijuana's LMB home run leader Corey Brown.

This is not the first go-round in Mexico for the well-travelled Clark, who went 3-for-15 with a homer for Laguna last season before the Vaqueros let him go in early May.  He'd begun 2016 in spring training with the eventual world champion Chicago Cubs, who released him in late March after signing Clark as a free agent one month earlier and went on to spend another month in Japan after leaving Torreon.  Clark's unsettled 2016 season was emblematic of what has been a peripatetic career dating back to his college days.

The son of former MLB pitcher Terry Clark (who was mostly a reliever for seven teams between 1988 and 1997), Matt attended high school in Rancho Cucamonga, California before enrolling at UC-Santa Barbara in 2005.  He spent one year with the Gauchos, transferred to Riverside CC for his sophomore season (where he was a Juco All-American), then signed on at Louisiana State as a Junior for the 2008 campaign.  Clark found Baton Rouge to his liking, tying Georgia's Gordon Beckham for the NCAA D1 home run title with 28 apiece.  Clark was drafted in the 12th round by San Diego that June and signed with the Padres.  He'd been picked a year earlier in the 28th round by Pittsburgh, but chose to attend LSU instead.

Beginning with Eugene in the Class A Northwest League, Clark worked his way through the Padres system for five seasons, including two years at AAA Tucson.  Despite hitting 97 homers and driving in 358 runs over his four full seasons with an accrued .282 average (picking up a couple of organizational All-Star selections along the way, but also striking out 509 times), he never got the call to report to San Diego beyond an invite to the Padres 2012 camp in Arizona.

After he was released from the Tucson roster a year later, Clark played in 2013 for the Chunichi Dragons of Japan, where he socked 25 homers and collected 70 ribbies in 132 but only hit .238.  Still, that was enough for the lefty-hitting first baseman to be signed by the Mets for 2014.  After spending time at AA Binghamton, Clark was let go but quickly picked up by the Brewers, who assigned him to AAA Nashville for the rest of the MiLB schedule.  Between Binghamton and Nashville, Clark hit .308 with 26 homers and 83 RBIs over 120 games before his September call-up to Milwaukee.  Clark's month in MLB resulted in a .185 average with three homers in 16 games with the Brewers, who then farmed him out to Colorado Springs for 2015.

After a good year with the Sky Sox, Clark chose to file for free agency and eventually signed with the Cubs.  Following his spring training release from Chicago and his month with Laguna, he returned to Japan with the Orix Buffaloes, but only batted .172 with a couple homers before being cut loose on July 6.  Clark remained out of pro ball until Monclova signed him in early March.  Thus far, he's been a linchpin of the Acereros batting order and has played respectably in right field, with one error on 30 chances over 23 games.  Never a speedstar (with one stolen base this decade), the massive Clark has generally been able to handle himself defensively in the outer garden alongside speedy centerfielder Willy Taveras well enough to keep him there in the lineup.

So what's next for Matt Clark after his three-homer outburst Sunday?  His place in the middle of the Monclova order under manager Wally Backman should be secure enough as one of the Mexican League's top power hitters this season.  On the other hand, he's playing under an owner who has all but mandated that the Acereros win his hometown's first-ever LMB pennant and a manager who's indicated his stay south of the border will only last as long as it has too.  In short, Clark's situation in Mexico is somewhat unsettled, but that's something he's already dealt with over more than a decade of college and pro baseball.  One suspects he's taking his experiences with the Steelers in stride.  In this game (and in this Liga), that's almost a prerequisite.