Clemens evolves into an artist with power

INSIDE PITCH

June 24, 1995|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

What the Orioles got from Roger Clemens the other night was a glimpse of the future -- and the past. Hopefully some of their young pitchers were paying attention.

"The Rocket" registered only one strikeout, his lowest total in almost two years, as the Red Sox beat the Orioles, 4-1, on Thursday night. That's about as many strikeouts as Clemens has averaged per inning during his dominating career.

Normally, you would suspect something was amiss if somebody with those statistics had only one strikeout in six-plus innings. But Clemens isn't just "somebody."

He's more of a pitching artist with power. Maybe not as much as he once possessed, but still enough to dominate a hitter when the occasion demands.

The difference between Clemens and many of the game's top strikeout pitchers is that he was never just a thrower who simply reared back and blew hitters away. What has made him so unique has been his uncanny ability not just to throw strikes, but to throw them in good spots.

That's what has enabled Clemens to make something of a transition in style almost without notice. He never has relied solely on his fastball, which once topped out in the mid-90s and still travels between the high 80s and low 90s. His slider is still nasty and his control rarely deserts him.

Indeed, it would be a treat for any young pitcher to watch a tape of the most memorable game ever pitched by Clemens. It was against the Seattle Mariners in 1986, when Clemens set a major-league record by striking out 20 -- and that wasn't even the most amazing number in his pitching line for that game.

While striking out 20, Clemens did not walk a batter. As overpowering as Clemens was, he maintained total control.

And now that his fastball and strikeouts have diminished, Clemens is merely doing what comes naturally. He throws good pitches to good spots, conserving energy for the half-dozen or so times per game that he has to turn up the heat.

The strikeouts don't come as frequently, and perhaps neither will the victories, but it hasn't been necessary for Clemens to make drastic alterations. He always has been a pitcher first, a strikeout artist second.

In a lot of ways, there is a similarity between Clemens and Jim Palmer during his later years. Palmer's control wasn't as consistent as Clemens' during his early years, but he became a master of matching his tools with a hitter's weakness.

The Palmer method was to throw the fastball "up the ladder," starting just above the strike zone and taking it to the next level each time he got a bite from the hitter. And, when necessary, there was enough left to go for the big pump.

Clemens is approaching that stage now, if he isn't already there, and he has had to make very little adjustment for the most basic of reasons. He always has been able to throw strikes.

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