Sunday June 10th, 2007

NEW YORK -- It wasn't until after his 108th and final pitch that the Yankee Stadium crowd felt comfortable showering Roger Clemens with the appreciation that been building since his last visit to the Bronx, when he announced his return to pinstripes. And that pitch was vintage Clemens, a splitter biting down and away from the flailing swing of Pirates lefty Ryan Doumit, preserving a one-run lead after six innings of work.

The Yankees cued Elton John's "Rocket Man," and the fans stood in a thundering ovation that roared through most of the mid-inning break and picked up again in the bottom of the sixth when the Yankees tacked on two more runs for a 6-3 lead en route to a 9-3 win.

It was the type of moment Brian Cashman and George Steinbrenner likely envisioned when they signed Clemens to an exorbitant deal, and after the game, Clemens gave the endorsement that was as important as the win: a clean bill of health.

"I think, health-wise, I came through about how I expected, just for the fact that everything came so fast," he said. "Now I can settle into a routine."

After all the budding hype, however, the start itself wasn't extraordinary, save perhaps his strikeout total, on a pitching line of 6 IP, 3 ER, 5 H, 7 K, 2 BB. Clemens did, after all, allow a run in the first inning on a two-out single by Adam LaRoche, and he yielded two more in the fourth, when Jack Wilson belted a fastball for a two-run double to the opposite field. That pitch, more than any showed that Clemens's velocity isn't what it used to be and might at times be a cause for concern.

The Yankee Stadium scoreboard credited the Rocket with one 92 mile-per-hour fastball on an afternoon when he was otherwise consistently in the 89-91 mph range, meaning there was less speed discrepancy between his fastball and his 84-86 mph split-fingered pitch. Whether it was the groin problem or simply the recognition of the advanced stage of his career, Clemens didn't seem comfortable relying on the fastball as an out pitch (though he remained unafraid to pitch inside).

"He knows he doesn't have the power and the strength he once did," manager Joe Torre said. "I think the intelligence to understand that is the reason he's still pitching today. As far as I'm concerned, he still has a variety of stuff to deceive hitters and more importantly understands himself."

Against the Pirates' lineup, of course, his splitter -- mixed with some sinking two-seamed fastballs, an occasional slider and an every-once-in-a-great-while curve -- were more than ample.

"What I saw was good enough," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said. "[He] kept us in the game. He threw very good splitters, the slider was off the plate and the arm speed is going to get there."

Against Pittsburgh, he was able to make mistakes and get away with it. A home start against the National League's 12th best offense was a cushy way to re-acclimate Clemens to major league hitters, even if many of the Pirates had seen him the last three years when he was with the Astros.

"I'll probably power pitch a little bit more," Clemens said. "I'm going to work my way to where I feel real comfortable and if I need to go to higher speeds in certain locations, I'll do so. I did have to use my slider too often today."

Clemens's next start -- a home game either Thursday vs. the Diamondbacks or Friday against the Mets -- should be a better test, though the young Pirates lineup deserves some credit for unexpected patience at the plate, particularly early in the game. Few hitters swung at the first pitch, and they had 13 at-bats of five or more pitches (including seven of the Pirates' first 10 batters).

In three of the first four innings, Clemens needed at least 21 pitches to retire the side -- bringing his total to 84 for the game -- before throwing a crisp fifth and sixth that required only a dozen pitches apiece. Such discipline will be the going strategy to drive up his pitch counts, not to mention the tactic deployed by Jose Bautista on Clemens's very first pitch: a bunt to force the 44-year-old with the fatigued right groin to play some defense. (It went foul.)

Still, the Pirates drove Clemens out of the game after six, leaving the lead to an already overlooked bullpen, where the six primary relievers (Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Myers, Scott Proctor, Mariano Rivera and Luis Vizcaino) have all made between 24 and 32 appearances, which is not a good track record for just 60 games of the season.

The atmosphere at the stadium seemed unusually subdued for the Rocket's re-launch, as the sellout crowd of 54,296 wasn't quite sure what to make of this version of the future Hall of Famer. Whether the anticipation for Clemens fizzled after his first start was pushed back nearly a week, whether the urgency of his return was lessened by the now five-game winning streak or whether it was just the ordinary Saturday matinee doldrums when you're hosting the Pirates, Yankee Stadium didn't match its normal volume, save the enthusiastic Clemens farewell.

It was only one start, even if it cost Steinbrenner about a million dollars. And it was a generally effective start, more in line with what the Yankees can realistically expect from the 349-game winner this season, regardless of how much money he's making (which, at $1 million per start, equated to roughly $9,259 for each of his 108 pitches).

Clemens reaffirmed that, even at this point in his career, he's indisputably a better option than any of New York's seemingly never-ending roster of rookie starters. Even the most promising of those prospects, Phil Hughes, was shifted from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day to open a roster spot.

"It's been too long since this type of talent on this team has been in the winning circle," Clemens said.

So on a day when the outfield standings flags placed New York third -- and even then only on account of the alphabet, because of a tie with Baltimore, 10.5 games back -- the Yankees didn't really need Clemens to be the Savior he was touted to be. Will he be enough to vault them back into the playoffs? Much too early to tell. For now, he was just a good pitcher who won what New York hopes is the first of many starts this summer.

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