Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Friday, July 19, 2002
Clemens starting to act his age? Yanks hope not

By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com

It's that time again: another mini-war between the Yankees and Red Sox, guaranteed to raise the temperature in the AL East. It starts tonight -- Mike Mussina against Pedro Martinez -- and by Sunday, at the conclusion of this three-game series, we'll have a better idea where the postseason traffic is headed.

Roger Clemens
Starting Pitcher
New York Yankees
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM IP W-L BB SO ERA
19 118.2 8-3 41 126 4.02

No need for introductions here: Everyone knows everyone in this northeast-corridor war. But Roger Clemens will be conspicuously absent, as he has been for the last week. Instead of inching closer to his 300th career win, the Rocket is on the DL, trying to preserve his most precious pitching asset -- those powerful legs.

The right-hander suffered a groin pull on July 12, an injury that's even more significant considering Clemens will be 40 in two weeks. While it's true that, in Andy Pettitte's words, "Roger is a freak of nature" still throwing a 93-mph fastball, there are also signs that age is exacting its toll on this future Hall of Famer.

Despite his 8-3 record, Clemens hasn't gone more than 5 2/3 innings since June 9, and scouts say that his fastball, while still impressive, is down 3-4 mph from earlier in the season. And that leads the Yankees to an obvious question: Just how healthy will Clemens be in September, when they'll need him most?

For now, the club's hierarchy is assuming a best-case scenario. With rest and rehabilitation at the Yankees' spring training complex in Tampa, the Yankees believe Clemens will return even stronger than before. Time off, the Bombers say, will be Clemens' ally, despite his years.

"These few weeks will help Roger take care of a lot of little injuries -- including his shoulder," pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said. "I'm an optimist, but I'm looking for good things from him when he gets back."

The curtain could rise on Clemens in as little as one week, although no one's saying for sure. While Clemens has carefully nursed his leg muscles back to health, he's maintained his throwing regimen in a unique way -- playing catch while on one knee, thus lightening the strain on his lower body, but still exercising his shoulder.

If I have a week (until Clemens returns), then I'm not going to think about it for a week. I won't wrestle with that now. When I do, it's going to be more like
dancing.
Joe Torre, on the possibility of juggling six starters

If the Yankees know anything about Clemens, it's that he's relentlessly committed to physical fitness. The Rocket weighs 230 pounds, yet he's able to run three miles in fewer than 22 minutes, and his between-starts workouts border on self-torture. His 500 sit-ups and ab-crunches are only the beginning of his exercise day, which is why Clemens still looks more like an NFL lineman than a middle-aged major leaguer.

Still, the club has suddenly backed off any desire to trade Orlando Hernandez, even though Clemens' return will leave Joe Torre with six qualified starters, including recently acquired Jeff Weaver.

What will the manager do with such an overcrowded rotation? If Torre has a solution, he's not telling anyone.

"If I have a week (until Clemens returns), then I'm not going to think about it for a week," Torre said. "I won't wrestle with that now. When I do, it's going to be more like dancing."

Most likely, Torre will allow all six starters a turn through the rotation, thus giving himself and GM Brian Cashman time to make a trade. Or perhaps the Yankees will simply decide there's no point in dealing anyone, especially if Clemens will be this fragile the rest of the summer. Even among younger athletes, groin injuries can last an eternity and Clemens himself admitted to "feeling a little beat up" before going on the DL.

So why does he keep pushing his body, after six Cy Young awards, two world championships since being traded to the Yankees in 1999, and, in his most dramatic appearance in pinstripes, out-pitching Curt Schilling in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series?

Why is Clemens still challenging nature? Mostly, it's because the Rocket is shooting for those final 12 wins to 300, even though it'll be virtually impossible for him to make it in 2002. Although Clemens hasn't announced whether he'll be back in 2003, friends doubt he'd walk away without reaching such a historic milestone.

The other reason Clemens hasn't retired is because his enormous skills are still intact. His velocity rivals that of pitchers 10-15 years younger, and his mechanics are still textbook perfect, Stottlemyre says.

"Roger has the most efficient delivery and uses his legs in the right way," he said. "That's why he's still throwing so hard."

Pettitte agreed.

"There's no one like Roger," he said "I mean, he's pushing 40 and still blowing the ball by hitters. It's ridiculous. The guy is a freak of nature."

Baseball people say Clemens can stay reasonably close to this talent-level for another 3-4 years -- if his legs are healthy. But that's not a certainty. Most disturbing to the Yankees is that Clemens' July 12 injury occurred after missing a turn in the rotation -- a full 10 days of rest.

That's why the club is being so cautious this time around, and why El Duque will remain in the Bronx, after all. Still, there's no doubt that Clemens will reclaim his role as the Yankees' ace, and even if he's showing subtle signs of aging, his legacy remains intact.

"Roger's our main guy, no question," Torre said. "For us to be successful, we need him around."

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.