Braves 4, Astros 1
“We still have some baseball to be played,” Clemens said after losing in what might have been the final start of his career, 4-1 to the Atlanta Braves on Friday night. “Standing here in front of y’all with two games left to play, that’s pretty nice.”
Houston’s run at one of baseball’s greatest late-season comebacks—the Astros trailed in the division by 8 1/2 games on Sept. 20—was dealt another blow when first-place St. Louis beat Milwaukee 10-5, extending the Cardinals’ lead in the NL Central to 1 1/2 games.
“This just slowed us down a little bit,” Astros manager Phil Garner said. “We’ve been playing mighty good, and we’ve still got some momentum. We’ve got to take that to heart tonight.”
With the score 0-0 in the sixth, first baseman Lance Berkman misplayed Chipper Jones grounder as Atlanta’s first run scored in a two-run inning. Edgar Renteria and Jones added consecutive homers off Fernando Nieve in the eighth.
There were runners on first and third when Berkman charged in for a possible throw to the plate only to miss the ball.
“He was coming hard and that was going to be his play,” Clemens said. “We had just talked about that on the mound, that was what he was going to do on a hard-hit ball or a soft-hit ball.”
Clemens (7-6), a 44-year-old right-hander who has won seven Cy Young Awards in a big league career that began in 1984, allowed two runs—one earned—and six hits in six innings.
“Roger proved tonight that he can pitch in any big game,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said.
The Rocket dropped to 348-178 in his career, and with seven strikeouts he raised his total to 4,604, second only to Nolan Ryan’s 5,714.
“You can’t pitch better than Roger pitched tonight,” Garner said. “Another fantastic effort.”
An emotional Clemens pounded his leg and his glove as he walked off the field following the sixth inning. The crowd of 31,034 rose in a standing ovation when Chris Burke was introduced as a pinch-hitter for Clemens in the seventh.
Chipper Jones, standing closest to the Astros’ dugout, joined in the ovation before Clemens emerged, tipping his cap to the fans and pointing his glove toward Jones.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for that man,” said Jones, who played with Clemens this year in the World Baseball Classic. “Having represented our country this spring with him, getting to know what he’s like as a competitor and as a person just ups that respect that I already had for him.”
Clemens was making his first appearance against Atlanta since earning the win in relief as the Astros won the decisive Game 4 of their 2005 first-round playoff series in 18 innings. He retired after the 2003, 2004 and 2005 seasons only to come back.
This year returned to the Astros on June 22. Once again, he hasn’t said whether he’ll pitch next season. He didn’t comment on his future after the game.
Rookie Chuck James (11-4), a 24-year-old left-hander, gave up one run and four hits in seven innings. James had the game ball, but his thoughts also were on Clemens.
“Maybe he’ll give me an autograph,” James said.
Bob Wickman pitched the ninth for his 17th save since joining the Braves and 32nd overall, completing a six-hitter. With runners at the corners and two outs, Wickman struck out pinch-hitter Aubrey Huff.
“We haven’t quit, and we’re not going to quit, and you saw that in the last inning,” shortstop Adam Everett said. “We’re going to battle you to the last out.”
Garner said Chris Sampson will start Saturday’s game. … Andruw Jones has a career-high 129 RBIs, one more than last year. … Chipper Jones’ fourth-inning strikeout was the 4,600th for Clemens. … Craig Biggio was hit by a pitch in the second inning, giving him nine this year and raising his major league record to 282.