Rocket ready to ride again

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HOUSTON (AP)—The last time we saw Roger Clemens, he was riding in from the bullpen for his first relief appearance in 21 years and rescuing the Astros in the longest postseason game ever played.

The final Houston pitcher available, he threw three shutout innings and struck out four of his 11 batters to earn the victory as the Astros beat Atlanta 7-6 in 18 innings Sunday to advance to the NL championship series.

It was an astounding performance for a 43-year-old power pitcher on two days of rest, yet another unforgettable moment to add to his ever-growing legend.

But Clemens is much more comfortable on the mound when he starts, and that’s what he’ll do Saturday in Game 3 of the best-of-seven NLCS against St. Louis. With the series tied 1-1, right-hander Matt Morris is scheduled to pitch for the Cardinals.

“I hope my energy level will be high. If not, I’ll try and find other ways as far as drawing off the crowd or certain situations, trying to get my energy where it needs to be,” Clemens said Friday, dark stubble stretched neatly across his round face.

The Rocket is remarkable, but he must be tired by now, too. He struggled with a strained hamstring down the stretch and pitched 211 1-3 innings this season, leading the major leagues with a 1.87 ERA.

He’s put off retirement twice and already has just about everything a pitcher could hope for: a record seven Cy Young Awards, 341 wins, two World Series rings and a sure ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Yet there’s one more thing Clemens would love to do—lead his hometown team to its first World Series, bringing Astros mainstays Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell along with him.

“Hopefully, we’re moving into reaching for higher places,” Clemens said. “The opportunity is there. You know, we see it and hear it and it might not come around again and we might not have that opportunity. We know that there are a handful of us that are a little bit older on this club and might not get that chance, so in that sense there is an urgency.”

The Rocket had a great opportunity to do it last year, but he blew a lead in Game 7 at St. Louis. Now, he gets a chance to avenge that loss, and he’s always relished a challenge.

“I’ll tell you this, Clemens will be ready,” Houston manager Phil Garner said. “The man never ceases to amaze me.”

And Garner only had to recount Sunday’s effort to explain what he meant.

“The look that you saw in his face was total resolve,” Garner said. “I don’t think it was a matter of how long it was going to take, he was going to do whatever it took and I don’t think I could have gotten the ball out of his hand anyway, and it was his game.”

Of course, if the Astros lose three times in the next four games, Saturday could be Clemens’ final appearance in the majors—but he doesn’t want to think about all that yet.

“I’ve been trying to shut it down for two years and I still can’t answer that now,” Clemens said. “I’m glad I left that percentage point open.”

He said a lot of things have changed for him since his mother, Bess, died on Sept. 14. That night, he pitched perhaps the most important game of the regular season for the Astros, beating Florida 10-2 to pull Houston within a half-game of the Marlins for the wild-card lead.

“There’s a big part of my heart that’s missing now with my mother gone, that’s just the way it is. I knew I pitched for her but I didn’t realize how much that I did,” Clemens said. “Some of my will is gone, but not all of it. You just look at things different. Like I said, every time I hear the anthem, I think about her, I think about seeing her face for the last time and that’s where I’m trying to draw my strength from and I owe that to my teammates.”

Finding a way to beat Clemens is tough enough with a healthy lineup, and the Cardinals are banged-up going into Game 3.

Left fielder Reggie Sanders’ neck was still bothering him after an awkward fall on the warning track during St. Louis’ 4-1 loss at home in Game 2 on Thursday night, and right fielder Larry Walker also has a sore neck.

Sanders and Walker each said they would play Saturday.

“This is crunch time, so I’ll definitely be out there,” Sanders said, adding that his teammates are not awed by Clemens. “No mystique there. I think it’s more just about him knowing himself and knowing what he’s capable of doing and hitting his spots.”

The Astros will probably close the roof at Minute Maid Park, making the sellout crowd even louder.

“I’ve seen players in other cities that were very popular. I’ve never seen anybody have such a large and rapid impact as Roger Clemens when he came to the Houston Astros,” catcher Brad Ausmus said. “He’s the face of baseball in the city of Houston.”

And Clemens understands what this series means around here.

“Ever since I’ve come home to pitch, my job has been more than just about pitching,” he said.

He’s back to work on Saturday.

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