At age 43, Roger Clemens said he would not have returned for a 23rd major league season unless he could help Houston get back to the World Series. With little more than half the season remaining, the Astros hope the future Hall of Famer’s arm still has enough to help them make a return trip there.
Eight months to the day after leaving Houston’s first World Series game with an injury, Clemens makes his long-awaited season debut for the Astros (37-35) as they wrap up a three-game set against the Minnesota Twins at Minute Maid Park on Thursday.
“I know I’m going to have some bumps in the road, but I expect to do well,” said Clemens, whose 4,502 career strikeouts are second only to Nolan Ryan. “I told you all along I wouldn’t have started this a long time ago if I wasn’t feeling that I could come back and help.”
A seven-time Cy Young Award winner, the “Rocket” signed a one-year contract worth $22,000,022 on May 31. Since then, he struck out six in three innings while playing alongside son Koby with Class-A Lexington. At Double-A Corpus Christi, Clemens fanned 11 to tie the team record for strikeouts.
In his final minor league start with Triple-A Round Rock on Friday, he allowed three runs and struck out five in 5 2-3 innings.
Clemens, who recorded a career-best 1.87 ERA while going 13-8 in 32 starts last year, believes he is ready to go—but struggled in making the decision to come back.
“Sometimes I’d wake up feeling ‘I can do this,’ but then by the end of the day, I’d be asking myself, ‘Do I really want to do this?”’ said Clemens, who pitched for the United States in March at the inaugural World Baseball Classic.
“I’ve done the work to prepare myself. I’ve been as honest as I can, I think my arm is where I want it be, I think my legs—I can get a little more endurance and stamina there, and that will come from start to start. I don’t feel too far removed. I expect to get in sync here.”
He also will want to erase the memory of his last major league outing. On Oct. 22, Clemens started Game 1 for the Astros against the White Sox on a damp, rainy night in Chicago, but lasted just two innings before exiting with a strained hamstring.
Houston was swept in four games by the White Sox. In December, the Astros declined to offer Clemens salary arbitration—meaning they could not re-sign him until May 1. He also was pursued by Boston, the New York Yankees and Texas before deciding to rejoin the Astros.
Clemens started his career with the Red Sox in 1984, and won AL MVP honors and his first Cy Young Award in 1986 after going 24-4. He also won Cy Youngs in 1987 and 1991 with the Red Sox.
After leaving Boston to sign a free agent contract with Toronto, Clemens went 41-13 with the Blue Jays in 1997-98, winning the Cy Young both years.
It was in New York, though, where he enjoyed his best success. Clemens spent five seasons with the Yankees, helping lead them to World Series championships in 1999 and 2000. He won his sixth Cy Young in 2001, but after the Yankees failed to win it all in his final two seasons there, Clemens retired following the 2003 season.
But after less than three months—and spurred by Houston’s signing of former Yankees teammate Andy Pettitte—Clemens unretired to join the Astros. In his first season with them, Clemens was 18-4 with 218 strikeouts en route to an unprecedented seventh Cy Young in 2004.
Last season, though, Clemens received little help from his teammates. The Astros were shut out in nine of his 32 starts and tallied two runs or less in five others.
“Last year we weren’t able to win the games like we should have when he pitched,” Pettitte said. “So hopefully we can play a little bit better when he takes the mound than we did last year and that will translate into a lot more wins for us.”
Clemens’ 341 career wins are the most among active pitchers and ninth all-time. His next victory will tie Tim Keefe, who pitched from 1880-93, for eighth.
“It’s going to be a fun night,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Everybody dreams of facing Roger Clemens, so they’re going to get that opportunity. Hopefully, they’ll remain relaxed enough to see the ball and get a good pitch to hit. Hopefully, we’ll rise to the occasion and handle ourselves.”
Clemens has the highest win total of any pitcher against Minnesota with a 23-12 record. He will be opposed by one of baseball’s better young pitchers as Francisco Liriano (6-1, 2.16 ERA) takes the mound for the Twins (35-35).
Since joining the rotation on May 19, Liriano has allowed just six runs in 36 innings while posting a 5-1 record. The left-hander struck out a career-high 11 over seven innings Friday in a 4-2 win over Pittsburgh.
“My arm feels great,” Liriano said. “I just want to keep throwing the ball, everything is feeling so good right now.”
Houston ended Minnesota’s eight-game winning streak with a 5-3 victory Wednesday in the middle game of the series. Lance Berkman hit his 200th career homer to extend his hitting streak to nine games for the Astros, who start play in third place in the NL Central, six games behind St. Louis.
Twins catcher Joe Mauer had one hit in three at-bats, and still leads the majors with a .377 batting average.