With his status for next season uncertain, Roger Clemens could be making the final start of his career on Friday.
The way the Houston Astros are playing, there’s a good chance it won’t be.
Clemens (7-5, 2.35 ERA) could help the Astros (81-72) take over the NL Central lead and run their winning streak to 10 games on Friday when they open a three-game series with the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.
Houston has made a dramatic late charge to close within one-half game of St. Louis for the division lead. The Astros, within reach of their third consecutive trip to the playoffs, have made up eight games in nine days as the Cardinals have lost eight of nine.
Clemens, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner, retired at the end of last season following Houston’s loss to the Chicago White Sox in the World Series, but rejoined the Astros on May 30 after signing a $22 million contract for the remainder of the season.
The Astros have played late into the night the past two days to push their win streak to nine games, their longest since a 12-game run late in the 2004 season. After a 15-inning victory Wednesday in which the bullpen logged 12 innings, Houston waited out a rain delay of nearly 3 1/2 hours before Roy Oswalt allowed four hits in seven innings of a 3-0 win over Pittsburgh.
“I applaud the Pirates and the umpires for showing a lot of patience,” Astros manager Phil Garner said. “I don’t think anyone wanted to come back. They were willing to give it a lot of time, and I appreciate that.”
Houston scored two of its runs on bases-loaded walks in the fifth inning, and the victory—combined with St. Louis’ 9-4 loss Thursday night to Milwaukee — drew the Astros within one-half game of first place.
“We’ve showed a little bit of grit and determination here to jump back in this race,” Garner said.
The Astros’ turnaround gained momentum with a four-game sweep over the Cardinals last weekend, capped by Clemens getting a win in the series finale Sunday when he limited St. Louis to one run in five innings in a 7-3 win.
“I told the guys when they came to the mound, ‘Give me another reason to tip my hat,”’ said Clemens, who has said he is undecided about pitching in 2007. “I’d love to be able to tip it one more time.
“I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. I”m not going to say a whole lot right now. Hopefully I’ll have the ball in my hands one more time.”
Clemens is 0-2 with a 3.71 ERA in five starts against the Braves and has not faced them this season.
The Braves (77-82) counter with Chuck James (10-4, 3.94). The 24-year-old left-hander threw seven scoreless innings against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sept. 14, but has given up 11 runs and 12 hits over 9 1-3 innings in his last two outings.
James was given a five-run lead Sunday against the Colorado Rockies, but allowed two runs in the fourth and four runs in the fifth en route to a 9-8 loss that eliminated the Braves from the playoffs.
The southpaw has never faced the Astros.
“It’s a chance in a lifetime to get a chance to pitch against (Clemens)— especially in the last game of my rookie season,” James said.
The Braves, who lost the finale of their three-game series against the New York Mets 7-4 on Thursday, lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Astros the last two years, providing extra incentive for a team that will miss the postseason for the first time since 1990.
“It would be fun to knock them out,” right fielder Jeff Francoeur said.
Houston has won three of four against the Braves this season, but the Astros have lost 12 of their last 19 at Turner Field.