Clemens is hoping to get Astros back in the win column

Veteran pitcher likely to pitch inside to keep Cards' hitters off balance

Baseball

October 16, 2004|By David Lennon | David Lennon,NEWSDAY

HOUSTON - Not that the Houston Astros were tight heading home down 0-2 to the St. Louis Cardinals, but knowing Roger Clemens would be taking the mound for today's Game 3 of the National League Championship Series had to be a comforting thought.

Only one other time has The Rocket been called on to rescue a team in similar distress, and that was with the Yankees, who dropped the first two games of the 2001 World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Coping with an eight-day layoff, and nursing a sore hamstring, Clemens stifled Arizona for seven innings as he allowed three hits and struck out nine in the Yankees' 2-1 victory. Three years later, the Astros are asking him to do it again.

"I'm sure I'll be anxious," Clemens said. "I hope my body responds."

In Clemens' case, hope usually has nothing to do with it. Not for a tireless worker and six-time Cy Young winner pitching in front of friends and family.

Astros owner Drayton McLane signed Clemens to a one-year, $5 million contract last offseason and Clemens has delivered on his end of the deal.

As a reminder as to why he was brought here in the first place, Clemens was wearing his 2000 World Series ring after yesterday's workout, figuring the diamonds might inspire a few of his teammates as well as himself.

"This is the time of year," Clemens said. "It brings back good memories. It brings back a lot of hard effort that I put forth to attain this ring. It was a long time coming."

If the Astros somehow survive the Cardinals, the Yankees or Red Sox will be waiting. When Clemens was asked about the possibility of staring down at either of his former teams, he couldn't stop from cracking a smile at the thought.

"I'm not going to look that far ahead," Clemens said. "But don't think that every time I turn a corner or pick up a phone, I'm not getting messages from those guys up there, friends from New York, friends from Boston, and they're telling me their dream matchup, which would just be another ulcer for me, probably."

Clemens has seen it all during the playoffs, from a frenzied Fenway Park savagely chanting, "Ro-ger, Ro-ger" in the 1999 ALCS to the sendoff he received from Marlins fans at Pro Player Stadium in Miami last October.

As for the Cardinals, Clemens said he spent much of Thursday's flight home visualizing his approach to the St. Louis hitters, which is part of his routine. Clemens was 2-0 with a 2.36 ERA in four starts against the Cardinals in the regular season, and after watching them tee off for 16 runs and 21 hits in the first two games, he was asked if he might establish himself inside.

"Well, I always feel, as a pitcher, everybody's too comfortable," Clemens said. "That's your job as a pitcher. I'm not too worried about guys. If you make good pitches, you should be able to make some outs.

"You'll notice during the game that if I'm making good pitches and guys are getting their nose out where they shouldn't be, then you'll have to adjust. Simple as that."

There was no need for translation. Clemens' reputation for pitching inside is well known, and the fallout from his episodes involving Mike Piazza apparently still have lingered. When questioned yesterday about his dismal All-Star outing at Minute Maid Park, when he gave up six runs and two homers in one inning, Clemens turned serious.

Piazza caught Clemens in that game, and judging from his response yesterday, The Rocket has not forgotten.

"I did not have a lot of fun in the game," Clemens said. "I was not looking forward to some certain situations. But I'll speak to that later. I don't think this is the time to talk about that now. I think everybody saw what happened. I was not comfortable out there."

With that, the storm passed, and Clemens continued his interview session. It was a taste of the fire the Cardinals can expect to see in today's Game 3.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Cardinals vs. Astros

Best of seven; *-if necessary St. Louis leads series 2-0

Game 1: St. Louis, 10-7

Game 2: St. Louis, 6-4

Today: St. Louis (Suppan 16-9) at Houston (Clemens 18-4), 4:25 p.m.

Tomorrow: St. Louis (Marquis 15-7) at Houston (Oswalt 20-10), 4:35 p.m.

*Monday: St. Louis at Houston, 8:19 p.m.

*Wednesday: Houston at St. Louis, 4:19 p.m.

*Thursday: Houston at St. Louis, 8:19 p.m.

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