Not at a fever pitch over Clemens

May 28, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY

The Houston Astros find it amusing.

The roster of the defending National League champions barely has changed.

Despite uncharacteristic struggles by three All-Star pitchers, the Astros are hanging above .500 and alive in the early playoff race.

Yet everyone outside of the team is focusing on the guy who isn't there.

Such is life in the crosshairs of the Roger Clemens big-game hunt.

"I think we have been overshadowed since the end of the World Series," said Houston general manager Tim Purpura. "It was really kind of humorous in spring training, you look at all these preseason rankings and people have us at 15th and 16th."

Clemens wasn't the only player on the Astros last year, but his 13 wins and 1.87 ERA sure helped their cause. His departure would have to hurt some.

When Purpura announced in December that the club wouldn't offer Clemens arbitration and the seven-time Cy Young Award winner wouldn't be able to re-sign with his hometown team until May 1, the intrigue swirled.

Maybe he'd retire for good. Maybe he'd return to Boston where his career began. Maybe he'd try to win another title with the New York Yankees. Maybe he was crazy enough to want to pitch for the Texas Rangers.

The best guess was: "Maybe he'd make everyone wait."

Six months later, the 43-year-old still hasn't thrown a big league pitch. He's getting close, though. He reportedly is in the middle of a strenuous three-week workout and, if he feels fine after that's over, he'll make a comeback. The announcement could come any day.

Now that the deadline has passed, he can rejoin the Astros. He can stay at home, pitch every fifth day and only go on the road when he is scheduled to start.

It's the greatest deal in sports. Make a few million per month as a part-time big leaguer. Only the amazingly resilient Clemens can pull that off.

But what about his Astros teammates? Are they bitter that they have to endure the wait, the questions? Apparently not.

"One of the advantages of not being a media darling is that we don't get it every day," manager Phil Garner said about the Clemens inquiries. "We get it usually at the beginning of a series wherever we go and it is short-lived. It is not something that lingers and lingers."

Besides, Purpura said, many of the Astros are friends with Clemens, so they don't begrudge him the time. Clemens frequently phones starter Andy Pettitte. He exchanges computer instant messages with catcher Brad Ausmus. Starter Roy Oswalt ran into him at a restaurant last week and they talked about Oswalt's career, not Clemens'.

"I asked him if he has seen anything different [about Oswalt] from last year. And we talked about that more than anything," Oswalt said. "I haven't really talked to him about coming back."

There are two underlying themes here.

One, deep down, the Astros expect Clemens to return to them if he un-retires.

"My stance has been the same ever since way, way back, I always felt if he was going to play again this year that he would play with the Houston Astros. And I also felt it wouldn't be probably until at least the middle of June," pitching coach Jim Hickey said.

"And I also didn't think he would come back if we were a struggling team like we were last year at this point, and we're not. So it is all the same as if you were to ask me in December or January."

Secondly, the Astros don't think they are sunk without Clemens. Their offense is healthier. Their fine defense has had another year together. Although they haven't pitched to expectations, Oswalt and Pettitte are an excellent 1-2 combination.

Right now, the rest of their starters, Wandy Rodriguez and rookies Taylor Buchholz and Fernando Nieve, are talented but grossly inexperienced. That doesn't mean they can't pitch.

"With [Clemens], if he came back in June he'd get 20 starts," Oswalt said. "If we can just get 20 quality starts from one of our younger guys we can be in the same situation."

Said Garner: "I think even if you have Rocket back, you still might look at whether we think we need to do something to improve the ballclub. If there is an opportunity we'll look at that. But we do like our ballclub."

The Astros with Clemens are a better team. The Astros with Clemens still aren't a lock to return to the World Series. And the Astros without Clemens still have a chance to make the playoffs.

So Clemens' decision shouldn't be baseball's most anticipated development.

But it is.

Seemingly everywhere, that is, besides inside the Astros' clubhouse.

"We don't spend much time talking about it at all," Hickey said. "I understand he is getting a little bit closer to his decision, so maybe when we get a few days closer to that maybe it changes a little bit. But probably not much."

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