HOUSTON (AP)—Chances are, the St. Louis sluggers might be a bit more jumpy the next time they step to the plate.
Roger Clemens is on the mound Saturday for Game 3 of the NL championship series, and the whole Houston season rides on his right arm.
The Astros trail 2-0, beaten up by a powerful lineup that includes Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds. Clemens watched them dig into the batter’s box and take big whacks at Busch Stadium.
Clemens has never been shy about pitching inside, especially in October. And usually right from the get-go.
In other words: Look out, Cards.
“I always feel, as a pitcher, everybody’s too comfortable,” Clemens said Friday, smiling. “Their job as a hitter is to be comfortable. Your job as a pitcher is you don’t want them to feel comfortable up there.”
Then, his eyes narrowed.
“You’ll notice during the game that if I’m making good pitches and guys are getting their nose out where they might not should be, then you’ll have to adjust,” he said. “Simple as that.”
The Rocket set up the greatest performance of his postseason career—a one-hitter for the Yankees in which he struck out 15—by buzzing Alex Rodriguez in the first inning against Seattle in the 2000 ALCS.
Last year, in what then appeared to be his farewell appearance, Clemens brushed back Miguel Cabrera in the first inning of Game 4 of the World Series. Never mind that the Florida rookie came back to homer in the at-bat.
“There’s no question that he’s intense when he’s in the game,” Astros manager Phil Garner said. “But it’s not sort of a YMCA, ‘I’m going to go out, play the game and have fun’ kind of deal. That’s not what we’re talking about.
“This is, ‘I love this game, yes, but we’re going to win or somebody’s going to die,”’ he said. “It’s almost that serious, I hate to say it like that.”
Clemens, a top Cy Young candidate after going 18-4 at age 42, will be followed in the rotation by Roy Oswalt, the NL’s only 20-game winner. Both of them went 2-0 against the Cardinals this season.
“Obviously, having the home-field advantage and now having a 2-0 lead is big when you got to go against Clemens and Oswalt,” Walker said. “We have two very quality pitchers ahead of us.”
No team in baseball postseason history has recovered from a 3-0 deficit to win a series. Down 2-0, the Astros are still in a precarious position—of the 61 teams that have fallen behind like that in a best-of-seven series, only 12 have rallied to win.
A trip to the World Series would give Clemens a chance to pitch against one of the two teams where he spent the most time, the Yankees and Boston. New York leads the Red Sox 2-0 in the ALCS.
“I’m smart enough not to look that far ahead,” he said. “But don’t think that every time I turn a corner or pick up a phone or I’m getting messages from those guys up there, friends from New York, friends from Boston, and they’re telling me their dream matchup, which would just be another ulcer for me, probably.
“Obviously, I see out in front of me both teams,” he said.
As for this possibly being his last game, Clemens said he’s not ready to think about that quite yet.
Walker is hoping to reach his first World Series. Acquired from Colorado in early August, he’s hit one of St. Louis’ five homers in the series. The Cardinals batted .318 and scored 16 runs in the first two games.
“There’s at least six guys in the lineup that can hurt you with the long ball,” Clemens said. “Obviously, every hitter in the lineup can take you of the ballpark—take you out of this ballpark, anyway. It’s conducive for that.”
Suppan was 1-4 despite a decent 4.11 ERA against the Astros this season. He opposed Clemens three times, and lost each time.
Clemens was well established with Boston when Suppan made his major league debut in 1995 with the Red Sox. Suppan was already familiar with Clemens.
“The first time I actually met him was over the phone. My pitching coach was Al Nipper at the time. I guess Clemens and him were good buddies,” Suppan said. “He gave me some advice. I don’t remember what that advice was.
“But going to spring training with him the next couple of years, getting a chance to play with him in the major leagues was a great experience for me, just watching his work ethic.”