The Rocket Concedes Nothing

While age and a dip in velocity conspire against the newest, oldest Yankee, Roger Clemens remains as hardheaded as ever
June 24, 2007

Emerging,finally, from an exit at Yankee Stadium, Roger Clemens strode into the lasthour of golden daylight last Saturday. He wore black slacks, a royal blue dressshirt and a fresh pruning from the team barber. Down below, in a corridoroutside the Yankees' clubhouse, a handful of yellow-shirted security guardswere able to smile at last. One of them clicked open a pen and ran a line ofblack ink through clemens on a sheet of paper listing all of the New Yorkplayers. Clemens's name, again, was the last to be crossed out, some two hoursafter the Yankees' 11-8 win over the Mets had ended. Only now could the guardsgo home.

The same scenehad unspooled the previous night: Clemens left well after midnight, havingpitched with a ditchdigger's ethic into the seventh inning against the Metsbefore working with sons Kacy, 12, and Kody, 11, in the indoor batting cage.Saturday's postgame included two hours of hot and cold treatments on his legs,followed, after he left the stadium, by dinner and then a postdinnerweightlifting session. Before the series finale on Sunday he put in extra workon fielding comebackers, throwing to bases and hitting.

By now, hisfourth season since he prematurely announced his retirement at the 2003 WorldSeries, it's obvious that Clemens is in no hurry to leave baseball and that heplays the game on his terms. Those terms, of course, include his generouscontract, which will fetch him roughly $17.4 million to make about 22 startsfor the Yankees, and allow him, as he did the previous three years with theHouston Astros, to leave the team between starts. (It should be noted, however,that Clemens has told Yankees officials his absences will be infrequent. Sincehe was added to the roster on June 9, he has yet to leave the team and plannedto make the entire nine-game swing through Colorado, San Francisco andBaltimore that began on Tuesday.)

And though sixweeks from turning 45, with leg muscles that twang like steel guitar stringsand a limited cache of high-caliber fastballs, Clemens still brings thesensibilities of a dictator to his job. More than ever, the pitcher is acontrol freak. "Hey, if I know I'm out there for 15 pitches and I need tolight up the radar gun, I'll light it up for you," Clemens says, "but Iwant to be out there for seven, eight innings and 110 pitches. The best line Ican give you, and Jorge [Posada] and I talk about it, is when we come out ofthat bullpen we look each other in the eye and say, 'We're going to play ourgame, and if we're forced to change, then we'll make adjustments.' And you makethem on the run. And that's if [hitters] force you to change. And that takes alot. I'm pretty hardheaded."

Not once in the216 pitches that Clemens threw in his first two starts back with the Yankeesdid the Rocket's heat exceed 92 mph. His four-seam fastball sits in the89-to-91 range, his two-seamer a tick or two below that. Armed, however, with avicious split-fingered fastball that's as good as ever and the aforementionedhardheadedness--Clemens is a staunch power pitcher the way Strom Thurmondremained a staunch conservative to the grave--Clemens concedes nothing.Whatever velocity he may have lost since his prime years is compensated forwith conviction and command.

Take, forinstance, the first inning last Friday, which Yankees manager Joe Torre called,"vintage Roger." The Mets put runners at first and second with no outsfor the 3-4-5 hitters: David Wright, Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca. Seventeenpitches later, none of which topped 91 mph or left the infield, Clemens gotthrough it unscathed. He jammed Wright on a four-seamer for a fielder's choice;whiffed Delgado on a splitter and dismissed Lo Duca with a two-seamer, inducinganother ground ball. In each case he went to two or three balls on the hitterbefore finishing the at bat.

Clemens lastedone out into the seventh inning while allowing two runs and striking out eight,but he still lost, 2-0, because Mets starter Oliver Perez was even better. Itwas the first time in seven years that Clemens lost a game in which he hadallowed no more than two earned runs while striking out at least eight. He hadbeen 28-0 in his last 40 such games and 142-17 over his career.

The Yankees hadrolled out 11 starting pitchers (including five who made their major leaguedebuts) while going 21-29, the sixth-worst 50-game start in the franchise's107-year history. Clemens, even at 44, offers a known quantity for the Yankees,who, by week's end, had climbed to 35-32. He rarely allows his team to fall outof a game, a navigational ability that seems, in fact, to be improving withage.

Since 2005, forexample, Clemens has allowed three earned runs or fewer in 89% of his starts(47 of 53). Few pitchers, regardless of age, are better at executing must-havepitches than Clemens. From his rookie year in 1984 through '02, the seasonduring which he turned 40, Clemens held hitters to a .218 average with runnersin scoring position. Since then, he has held hitters in 618 such at bats to a.170 mark, the lowest in the game (minimum: 300 at bats).

"If there'sanything I can tell young pitchers," Clemens says, "it is to understandthat when you get up in the morning and you're taking your shower and you'repitching that night, you know you're probably going to have second and thirdwith one out, and you're going to have to get out of it. I mean that's what youdo. We're paid to pitch out of it.

"You have tounderstand coming in that you're going to get into two or three predicamentsthat you have to get out of. So when you get in them, you don't blink. You justgo back to making good quality pitches and you go from there."

Most often, it isthe splitter that rescues Clemens from trouble. "He has such confidence inthat pitch that he'll throw it at any time," says the Mets' Wright. "Hethrew me a 3-and-0 split--with a runner on third base. Now that's havingconfidence in the pitch.

"I didn'teven bother watching video [on Clemens] before this game. You know why? Healways stays away from pitching to patterns. You're not going to pick up thatkind of stuff on him."

Says one NationalLeague scout who has seen both of Clemens's starts, "He's primarily afastball-splitter pitcher; 80% of his breaking balls are going to befirst-pitch, get-it-over pitches to lefthanders. It's mostly a case of locatinghis fastball to sell the splitter. He's the same way with his splitter thatRandy Johnson is now with his slider. It's their primary pitch and they have tobe able to spot their fastball to set it up. Neither one is dominant like theyused to be, but they are solid number twos or threes in anybody's rotation. AndI think you'll see Roger, as he makes more starts, gain a couple of more clickson his fastball with a little more finish to it, that late life."

Clemens' plan ofattack relies less on velocity than on what he calls "creating myangles"--though he proudly claims, "Oh, that 95 [mph], it's there. Ican get that now if I need it. I can go there two, three times if I needto." His two-seamer, which has a darting, sinking action, and his splitter,which is cloaked in a two-seamer's clothing only to dive more sharply, aredesigned to be thrown low. His four-seamer occupies higher airspace.

"Right nowI'm pitching in a comfortable spot--90 to 92 is plenty," Clemens says."But what I really want to continue to do is to be down in the zone when Iwant to be and up in the zone when I have to be. It's no different than 10years ago. You move guys' eye levels."

Says teammateMike Mussina, "He hadn't pitched in how many months? Six or seven? And hecan have this kind of command in just two starts back? Now that'simpressive."

Clemens's staminahas also been surprising. After throwing 104 pitches through six inningsagainst the Mets, he was given the choice by Torre on whether to continue.Clemens said he would. He retired the leadoff hitter, Julio Franco, on a groundball but left after the next batter, Carlos Gomez, bunted for a base hit.

Yankees secondbaseman Robinson Cano was 18 months old when Clemens made his major leaguedebut. "The first time I met him was right before his first start [againstthe Pittsburgh Pirates on June 9]," Cano says. "He went around theclubhouse and shook people's hands and said, 'Hi, I'm Roger Clemens.' It wasexciting to meet him and to play with a Hall of Fame player like that. He'sbigger in person than what I thought."

Indeed, Clemenshad so little time to get to know the Yankees who weren't his teammates in NewYork four years ago that shortstop Derek Jeter made a joke of it before Clemensthrew his first pitch that day. Jeter walked up to the mound and said,"Seems like old times, Rocket, doesn't it? This is pretty cool. By the way,that's Robinson Cano at second base and Josh Phelps at first base and. . .."

Clemens, smiling,cut him off. "I know them cats," he replied. "Who do you thinkyou're talking to, [Andy] Pettitte?"

With that,Clemens turned serious and went back to work, picking up where he left off lastfall, making the twilight linger a little longer.

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Clemens's plan of attack relies less on velocity thanon what he calls "creating my angles"--though he proudly claims,"Oh, THAT 95 [MPH], IT'S THERE."

PHOTODavid E. Klutho SPLITDECISION Clemens started 1-1 with a 3.65 ERA, and all the evidence pointedto his splitter being as potent as ever. SIX PHOTOSDavid E. Klutho PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON (TOP)JETE SHEET The Captain gave the Rocket a quick review of the Yanks' roster. SIX PHOTOSPhotographs by David E. Klutho PHOTOROB TRINGALI/SPORTSCHROME (BOTTOM)GATOR AID In pitching coach Ron Guidry, Clemens has a kindred spirit.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)