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Toiling Rocket completes mission10/06/2004 7:48 PM ET
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
ATLANTA -- It seemed like a strange time to ask Roger Clemens if he was pondering retirement.
Then Clemens provided an even stranger answer.
"Yes," he deadpanned. "The way I felt in that first inning, sir, I thought I might have to [retire] right on the spot."
Don't worry, Astros fans. He was kidding.
But Clemens' tough first inning in Game 1 of the National League Division Series -- his tough first five innings, in fact -- were no joke. Clemens was coming off a nasty bout of the stomach flu, was pitching for the first time in eight days and -- if all that were not enough -- dealing with a torn-up pitching mound at Turner Field.
Clemens simply got the job done.
"He's Roger Clemens, man," first baseman Jeff Bagwell said after Clemens and the Astros pinned down a 9-3 win over the Braves in Game 1 of the Division Series. "He's a special individual, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. He gutted it out today."
It wasn't pretty, but after the Astros notched the win and Clemens won a Game 1 for the first time in his career, no one could argue its effectiveness.
He pitched seven innings and allowed six hits, including a home run and six -- yes, six -- walks. Clemens had never issued more than four walks in 27 previous postseason starts, and he has never walked more than seven batters in 639 regular-season starts.
But here are the numbers that really mattered: Clemens limited the damage to three runs, two of them earned. And he stranded a whopping 10 Braves runners on base in the first five innings before breezing through the sixth and seventh.
"Over the course of my career, I've shown my manager that I can get out of some of my problems," Clemens said. "There's going to be times when you get burned. You've seen it."
He rarely got burned on Wednesday, when he won Game 1 of a postseason series for the first time in seven tries.
In all, Clemens threw 117 pitches, but needed only 21 to get through his final two innings.
"By the time we came to the fifth, I thought we were going to have to take him out," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "Each time, I had guys ready to go. But each time, as he's done all year, he got the job done. He finds a way to get it done. This was not his best performance today, but he got the job done."
Garner has seen performances like this one before.
"I got to play behind Nolan Ryan," Garner said. "You know a special person when you're playing behind him. To a certain extent, you watch what they do and you learn from these people. The Rocket is a special guy, he's a special athlete."
That was most evident in the third inning, when Clemens walked the bases loaded with two outs and was struggling to get calls on the outer part of the plate from home plate umpire Tim McClelland.
Up came Braves rookie Charles Thomas, and Clemens got him to swing at strike one low and away. After working to a full count, Clemens got a called strike three. And he got it on the outside corner.
"I cannot come to the middle," Clemens said. "I'm not going to allow what's going on in that game to dictate me to come to the middle. I'm going to be a little hardheaded and continue to hit my spots, and hopefully that will be enough."
As he walked off the field, Clemens threw up his right hand in frustration. Was he frustrated about McClelland's calls? His own health? The choppy mound?
"Everything, it was everything," Clemens said. "I think it was not being out there for a week. You just want your body to react, and you want to be sharp, just to give some life to your teammates. That's what you try to do as a starting pitcher; you try to take command of the game and get that momentum and hang onto it. I was able to wiggle my way through some innings there and then we put some numbers on the board."
He finally put to rest those "can't win a Game 1" doubters.
"I'm tired," Clemens said. "It was difficult. I haven't been out there in a week. But I'll ice again tonight and get my body ready."
That's a good thing, because Garner is considering bringing him back on short rest for Game 4, if needed.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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