Two words hitters fear most: Clemens tonight

Ken Rosenthal

September 25, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

If the Toronto Blue Jays are smart, they'll pray for more rain in Baltimore. Open the heavens, scratch Roger Clemens. Keep the Rocket grounded one more day.

Clemens tonight. No two words in sports so inspire a team, no two words so deflate an opponent. Clemens tonight. The focus of a pennant race. The hope of all New England.

No athlete can dominate his game like Clemens, not Magic, not Michael, not Montana. "He gets you up," Boston reserve catcher John Marzano says. "Other teams get down."

The divergent psychologies tilt the playing field before he ever throws a pitch. Clemens stands an imposing 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds. He doesn't always shave. He rarely looks pleased.

Every year the Sox roll out pitchers named Hesketh and Gardiner and Bolton. Every year they count down -- four, three, two, one -- until the Rocket lifts off on his appointed day.

Clemens tonight. First game of a doubleheader. Working on his third Cy Young. He's winless in his last three starts against the Orioles, but this is September. A different flight plan.

In his last six starts he's 5-0 with a 1.38 ERA, three shutouts and four complete games. Perhaps you recall his baffling midseason slump, the one in which he won only twice in six weeks. It's over. And out.

His record stands at 17-8. He leads the AL in ERA (2.43), strikeouts (217), innings (248 1/3 ) and shutouts (four). He ranks third in opponents' batting average (.215) and second in complete games (11).

No one is like him. No one throws so hard and so accurate. No one pitches with such fire. The Sox made him the game's highest-paid player last winter (four years, $21.5 million). He remains obsessed with being the best.

Clemens tonight. The exploding fastball, the nasty forkball, the devastating slider. Clemens tonight. The controlled fury, the incredible focus, the pending dominance.

"As a player, you love having him on the mound," says the Orioles' Dwight Evans, the Rocket's former teammate in Boston. "You know you have the best. You just know you're going to win."

Clemens is only 29, but among pitchers with 100 victories, his 133-59 career record gives him the second highest winning percentage in AL history (.693) behind Spud Chandler (.717).

Statistically, the only active pitcher who compares is Dwight Gooden (132-53, .714). But Gooden missed half of 1989 with a shoulder problem, and recently underwent rotator-cuff surgery. He hasn't won 20 games since going 24-4 in '85.

The Rocket is in his own orbit now. Six straight 200-strikeout seasons. Six straight 200-inning seasons. Six straight of 17 or more wins. Every year he seems to suffer arm trouble. Every year he makes his 35 starts.

Clemens tonight. Two more starts after that. And then maybe October. The Orioles' Randy Milligan says, "He's got that mystique." Manager John Oates settles on "intimidating" as his most descriptive word.

"He's like a noseguard on the mound," Evans says. "I've seen him go after an infield grounder on the right side, catch the ball and dive on the bag so the runner can't touch it."

Funny, but not long ago, it seemed he might explode, might self-destruct. First, he threw his legendary playoff temper tantrum against umpire Terry Cooney in Oakland. Then, he scuffled with police defending his brother at a bar in Houston.

All that is behind him now. Off the field, the new Rocket runs on decidedly low-octane fuel. He's cooperating with the media, trying to improve his image. He may not talk to a reporter on a certain day. But he'll gladly arrange a phone interview.

On the field, well, he'll still plunk a John Shelby here, a Matt Nokes there. But he's thinking of calling Nokes with an explanation. And he's keeping quiet about the umpires, who still appear to squeeze him on occasion.

Mercifully, the focus is on his pitching again. Marzano says he should have 24 wins, and that's not far off. Three times Clemens left with leads but did not earn wins. Twice he absorbed losses when the Sox gave up three unearned runs.

His critics point to his 1-2 record in eight postseason starts and say he doesn't win big games. But this would be Boston's fourth division title in six years. Oh, Clemens wins big games all right. He surely has a big postseason in him as well.

But first things first. Clemens against the Orioles. First game of a doubleheader. Blue Jays praying for rain. "He doesn't think about tomorrow," Evans says. "When he's pitching, there's no tomorrow."

Only one thing matters.

Clemens tonight.


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