Wednesday, October 6, 2004
Roger The Dodger
By Jayson Stark
ATLANTA -- He didn't have to be out there, putting himself through this aggravation.
Heck, no. Roger Clemens could have spent Wednesday playing catch with his kids in the back yard. Or hitting golf balls at Wildcat Golf Club. Or signing autographs at the mall for a quick couple of grand.
He could have retired. Wait, he did retire. And had he just stayed retired, for longer than 20 minutes, he wouldn't have found himself in Turner Field on Wednesday, trying to figure out why all those Braves baserunners were dancing all around him, threatening to ruin his October fun.
It was Game 1 of the 2004 postseason, the kind of game Roger Clemens climbed out of the retirement home to pitch. His mission was simple: To lead the Houston Astros out of their 24-year October nightmare. But this wasn't what he had in mind.
It's almost a miracle that, as you're reading this, the boxscore will show that Clemens and the Astros won this game, 9-3, beating the Braves in the opener of their NL Division Series.
Those boxscore will say that Clemens pitched seven innings. Gave up two earned runs. Struck out seven.
The boxscore will make it look like this was classic Clemens. The eyewitnesses, on the other hand, will tell you that for a while there, it looked more like classic Joaquin Benoit.
"Yeah," laughed catcher Brad Ausmus afterward. "It seemed like they had the bases loaded every inning."
Well, not quite. But just about. Ten outs into his day, Clemens already had made a big enough mess to have the Braves custodial crew on red alert.
He'd spewed out six walks -- something he hadn't done in his previous 215 consecutive starts (231 if you count the postseason). He'd launched two wild pitches. He'd accumulated as many baserunners as outs.
He was still feeling the wobblies from his weekend case of stomach-virus hell. He was having issues with umpire Tim McClelland's strike zone. He wasn't happy that opposing starter Jaret Wright was digging a replica of the Grand Canyon in front of the rubber.
He got himself so out of sync so fast, he said later, that when someone asked him about the thrill of coming out of retirement for games like this, he chuckled: "The way I felt in that first inning, I thought I might have to [retire again] right on the spot."
It isn't quite true that the first four innings of this game lasted longer than Clemens' retirement. But it was close.
Over those first four innings, the Braves moved eight runners into scoring position. How six walks, two wild pitches, three hits, one error and one stolen base translated into a grand total of one Atlanta run (and no earned runs) is hard to explain.
But there's no better way to sum it up than this:
That was Roger Clemens, official living legend, out there.
"He always finds a way," said Jeff Bagwell, after only the second postseason victory (in 13 games) of his long, glorious Astros career. "He's found a way to win 328 games. And today he found a way to win one more."
|Attempting to hit a pitch thrown by Roger Clemens could possibly be the toughest thing to do in all of sports.|
The last time the Braves saw anybody spend this much time in the stretch, they might have been watching Jane Fonda film one of her workout tapes. But a lot of good it did them.
They went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. And they tied a Division Series record by leaving 12 runners on base in a nine-inning game -- nine of them just in the first four innings.
"When Roger gets in trouble," said Atlanta's Marcus Giles, "his stuff gets a little bit more nasty. He just turns it up a notch with men in scoring position. If he didn't, I don't think he'd have had the success he's had in his 35 years in the big leagues."
OK, so maybe Clemens hasn't been winning games in the big leagues since he was 7. But it seems like it.
He's now the winningest right-handed pitcher of the live-ball era. And he's getting to the point where he whizzes by some famous dead guy on some prestigious all-time list every couple of weeks.
But one thing he'd never done before Wednesday was win Game 1 of any postseason series. In six starts, for two teams, over nearly two decades, he'd gone 0-3, with a 5.63 ERA -- and his team had lost five of those six starts. No pitcher in history had ever started that many openers of that many series without winning one.
So it figured that, when Clemens finally did break that schneid, it would be on a day when he was more vintage Houdini than vintage Clemens.
"I had to will my way through that game," Clemens said later. "Sometimes, it takes more than talent or more than a 95-mile-an-hour fastball. You have to will it."
But nobody is born with the knowledge of how to will himself to a critical win in October. It's the kind of thing you learn when you stick around for 21 seasons and 4,000 innings and 10 visits to the October dance marathon, as Clemens has.
These are the lessons Roger Clemens is now hanging around this Astros franchise to teach. And maybe those guys around him are catching on -- because this was a different kind of October day for the Astros, too.
In the Bagwell-Craig Biggio era, they had been to the playoffs four previous times. They scored more runs (nine) and hit more home runs (four) Wednesday than they piled up in three of their previous four series.
Bagwell and Biggio have never hit a postseason homer. But in the third inning Wednesday, Ausmus -- coming off a five-homer, 31-RBI offensive season that didn't quite remind anyone of Albert Pujols' season -- cranked a game-tying, 376-foot homer deep into the left-field seats off Jaret Wright. And after that, the home runs and runs seemed to flow like a keg of Lone Star.
"I think they just saw me hit a home run," Ausmus quipped. "And they figured if I could do it, anybody could do it."
Nine runs later, Bagwell stood at his locker and listened to question after question about all those painful Astros postseason failures of the past. But you can't blame him for getting real tired of those particular history lessons.
Those Astros teams didn't have Carlos Beltran or Jeff Kent.
Those teams didn't charge into the playoffs with a 36-10 season-ending blitzkrieg.
And, maybe above all else, those teams didn't have a Roger Clemens out there to protect a lead if they actually took one.
"This is a different club," Bagwell said. "That series in 2001 was a long time ago. I know the history, but this is a different year, with a new case of characters. And this is one of the best teams I ever played with."
There are many reasons for that, obviously. But had a certain six-time Cy Young award-winner just stuck with that retirement plan we all spent so much time last October gushing about, you have a feeling none of this would have been possible.
"Yeah, I wish he'd gone through with that retirement thing," said Atlanta's Chipper Jones. "There have been many times the last couple of years I wish he'd gone through with that retirement thing. But how can he retire? He still throws 95, with one of the best splitters in the game, and the aura and knowledge of a perennial Cy Young award-winner."
He's 42 years old, and he just went 18-4. He's 42 years old, and he just won more games than any pitcher his age except Warren Spahn, Cy Young and Jack Quinn. He's 42 years old, and he just finished striking out 218 hitters in 214 1/3 innings -- a strikeout total and rate matched only by one other man his age in modern times: Nolan Ryan.
He's such a walking, talking history museum, even the teams Roger Clemens beats have learned to appreciate him.
"Roger is great for the game," Jones said. "Oh, he's not great for any games we play in, of course. But he's great for the game."
Clemens is still so great, in fact, he's almost certainly coming back to pitch next year. At this rate, he might pitch 20 more years. Or 35. But the Houston Astros will worry about the 2039 season some other time. They're just trying to make this one turn out happier than their previous 42.
And after they'd finished watching their living legend muddle his way through seven amazingly good innings Wednesday, it was hard to find any Astro who felt too bad that Clemens easily could have been hitting Top Flites instead of throwing bee-bees.
"I know I'm glad he wasn't playing golf today," said Ausmus. "I think a lot of people in here are."
|Bobby Cox is in his 24th season as a manager in the big leagues.|
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.