It hurts just watching Clemens
Dierker hopes to see 'best pitcher' ever one more time
Roger Clemens is the best pitcher I have ever seen, bar none. That's why it has been so sad to see him struggle with injuries (lower back, upper back and hamstring) throughout August and September.
Looking back, it would be better for him to let the injuries heal instead of making each start, like a wounded warrior. Each time, he felt good enough to go out there. But he did not feel great. On several occasions, he managed to pitch well enough to win on grit alone. Most of the time he battled mightily, keeping the Astros in the game but looking more like a firecracker than a Rocket.
At the beginning of the season, he was practically unhittable. He had command of five pitches -- a sinking fastball and a riding fastball, a split-fingered fastball, a slider, and a curveball. His control of these pitches was phenomenal. Most starting pitchers have four or five pitches but have command only of two or three from one start to the next. Roger had command of them all -- and he would never give in and throw a fastball down the middle, even to the pitcher, even when the bases were loaded and he was behind in the count.
When his lower back seized up on him, he continued to throw hard, but he lost some command. It seemed like the only pitch he could throw to a corner was his riding fastball. As he struggled to overcome the injuries, he lost a little velocity, and even lost control of the fastball. Still, he continued to answer the call each time his start came around.
By the time the schedule turned to September, he was throwing mostly fastballs. His deadly split was gone; hitters didn't chase it like they did earlier in the season when it was ankle high. He shelved the curveball, could no longer throw backdoor sliders, and his sinker lost its bite. But he persevered, and managed to keep his ERA under 2.00. One of his best starts in September came only hours after his mother (who was both mother and father to him) died. He pitched that game for her, and to keep the Astros in contention.
No one will ever know how much pain he had to endure. He acknowledged that he had some discomfort, but refused to use it as an excuse. He knew he was compromised, but he brushed his injuries aside like a waiter clearing a table. No big deal. I know, however, that it was a big deal. Been there, done that. The last two years I pitched, my arm let me down. I seldom had command of my pitches and lost some velocity. I had enough experience to win a few games. Most of the time, however, I knew what to do, but my arm wouldn't let me do it. It was really frustrating.
That's why Roger's decline wounded me, too. It's was so sad to see hitters who couldn't touch him early in the year light him up at the end. And it was so inspiring to witness his nobility through it all.
I prefer not to remember Roger Clemens as the hurler who was savaged by the White Sox in the first game of the 2005 World Series. Instead, I look back at his relief performance in the 18-inning game in the Division Series with Atlanta. He pitched three innings of shutout baseball in that game, striking out four batters, using all of his pitches, and looking like he did earlier in the season. And he did it on two days' rest because the Astros had run out of pitchers. He would have continued pitching right up to the end for his team. He would have pitched his arm off. Fortunately, he won that game when Chris Burke hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 18th.
After the game, he made an appearance on the field for network television. Just as he was beginning to answer the first question, he saw Burke and reached out and drew him into the process. "Here, talk to the kid," he said. "I didn't win the game. He did."
I hope this isn't the last I will see of Roger Clemens. I hope his hamstring heals and he gets a start in Houston, where the chilly weather will not be a factor. I hope to see him pitch another powerful game and go out on a high note instead of fading away. But if his hamstring doesn't heal or the White Sox sweep the Series, I will still say he is the best pitcher I have ever seen. His career may not end with a bang, but it will not end with a whimper. No matter what happens, he will be the victor, not the vanquished.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.