Rocket guts out six innings
Clemens doesn't offer vintage outing, does enough to get win
HOUSTON -- It wasn't vintage Roger Clemens on the mound Saturday at Minute Maid Park, but it was good enough.
The aging 43-year-old right-handed warrior -- aging at least by baseball standards -- used his guile, guts and experience to pitch six innings of two-run, six-hit ball against the defending National League champion Cardinals.
The effort was enough to be decisive in the Astros' 4-3 victory in Game 3 that gave them a 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven NL Championship Series that continues here on Sunday and Monday night.
"Who knows what tomorrow is going to bring?" said Clemens, who earned the 12th postseason win in his illustrious 21-year career, and only the second in the NLCS. "But our guys are loose and we are just trying to play the game the best way we know how. This time of year is a lot of fun. It's a lot of fun to have everything be so meaningful. That makes it worth it."
It might have been a measure of his performance that the second all-time strikeout leader (behind Nolan Ryan) whiffed only one Cardinal on Saturday. That's happened only three times now in his 33 postseason appearances, 32 of them starts. Clemens ducked in an out of trouble during the middle innings after setting down 11 of the first 12 batters he faced.
"He bent a little bit, but he didn't break, and he certainly didn't give in," Astros manager Phil Garner said.
So Taguchi led off the fourth by drilling a long drive to the warning track in right-center field. Albert Pujols followed by launching another ball to the left of center near the 404-foot mark. Chris Burke -- playing out of position in center field, but not out of sight -- hauled in both shots.
No harm, no foul.
In the fifth inning after David Eckstein's sacrifice fly shaved an early 2-0 Astros lead in half, Taguchi plowed another shot to the right-field fence that Jason Lane caught without incident.
Was Clemens allowing the Cardinals hitters to use the big outfield? Was it luck? Or was it a little of each?
"Well, I hope it's a combination of both," Clemens said. "I had good movement on my two-seamer and was able to ride my fastball when I needed to. I was fortunate that I was able to beat a few guys in the zone where the ball stayed in the ballpark. Albert, he's a very good, very dangerous hitter. I enjoy those situations, especially when you come out on the lucky side, I guess if you want to call it that."
All-time postseason wins leaders
Clemens' mother, Bess, died on Sept. 15 from complications of emphysema. He started that night at home and defeated the Marlins, but the remainder of the season has been a quagmire of Clemens dealing with his emotions, plus a strained left hamstring.
Clemens, who lost his one start in the NL Division Series to Atlanta, but redeemed himself by pitching the final three innings in relief during that 18-inning marathon last Sunday that clinched the series, said he was stable physically on Saturday.
"Legs felt fine, legs felt fine," he said. "It was just emptying the tank and using the energy in a positive manner."
But he began to toil as the pitches piled up and the Cardinals hitters tried to lengthen their at-bats by going deep into the count. He needed nine pitches to get Abraham Nunez to bounce out to second opening the third inning, but quickly retired the next two batters.
Clemens then singled with one out in the bottom of the third and remained on base for the remainder of the inning. After that, everything seemed to be a struggle.
There were those long fly balls to open the fourth, followed by a pair of walks to Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker. Mark Grudzielanek worked the count full and then ended the inning with another grounder to second.
Add two singles and Larry Walker's tying sacrifice to lead off the sixth, but that was all. As Garner said, he bent, but he didn't break.
"[Clemens] is a warrior," catcher Brad Ausmus said. "As far as not having his best stuff and pitching well, that's what he does. He wins even when he's not at his best."
Clemens left after six, having thrown 97 pitches. The score was tied, 2-2, and he benefited from the fact that the Astros scored the eventual winning runs in the bottom of the inning. Sometimes it's better to be fortunate than terrific as Clemens learned this season, which he finished with only a 13-8 record to show for his Major League-leading 1.87 ERA.
"I've been in this game long enough to know you're going to get tested," Clemens said. "Throughout a ballgame, at least twice you're going to have to get out of trouble. And in low-scoring games, that's always the case. It's a battle."
The next test for Clemens will either be in Game 7 of this series, if it extends that far, or one of the first two games of the World Series, if the Astros get there for the first time in their 44-year history.
And even if it's not vintage Clemens then either, perhaps it will again be good enough.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.