SEATTLE – Mike Cameron was 11 years old when Roger Clemens made it to the major leagues in 1984.
He may have had as good a chance of getting a hit off Clemens then as he did in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series Saturday night at Safeco Field.
Pick an adjective: Masterful. Superb. Dominant. Overpowering.
Clemens was all of these in pitching the New York Yankees to within one victory of the American League championship.
When the game ended, only one Mariner player had a hit. Al Martin got a leadoff double in the seventh and was still standing at second when the inning ended with Cameron taking a called third strike.
“He threw real hard, the ball was moving everywhere,” Cameron said as he sat in front of his locker in a disconsolate Mariner clubhouse after the Yankees cruised to a 5-0 victory and a 3-1 lead in the series they can end this afternoon. “He kept it out of the middle of the plate, hit the corners, which made it difficult to hit.”
This was not the Roger Clemens the opposition had seen in his first two postseason appearances. That Clemens had lost both starts and been touched for 10 runs in 11 innings.
This Clemens looked like the Cy Young Award-winning Clemens of 1986, ‘87, ‘91, ‘97 and ‘98. Only this Clemens is 38 and in the twilight of his career.
Twilight? You couldn’t prove it by the Mariners.
Yankee manager Joe Torre is old enough to have seen some pretty powerful pitching performances in his day. “Don Larsen’s postseason (perfect) game was pretty damn good, but this was total dominance tonight,” he said. “I just felt very comfortable watching him pitch.”
He can say that. He didn’t have to bat against him.
Cameron put it succinctly: “He had good (stuff) tonight.”
If you were watching, you may have wondered why Cameron watched that third strike go by with Martin on second and John Olerud on first and two outs in the seventh.
“He’ll relive that pitch for the rest of his life,” someone remarked in the pressbox.
At that moment, the M’s were behind 3-0 as a result of a three-run homer by Derek Jeter in the fifth. One swing of the bat and Cameron could tie it.
He worked the count full, then became a spectactor as Clemens hit the outside corner with the knockout pitch. “Maybe it was too close for me to take, but I felt I couldn’t get to it,” Cameron said. “I thought it was outside, but Roger got the call.”
You get calls when you have 260 career wins and a spot reserved in the Hall of Fame. You get calls when you are around the plate with most of your pitches. You get calls when your name is Roger Clemens.
He had said the day before that he wanted to be exciting, dominant and aggressive. Or what he always tries to be. “That’s my approach on a Saturday in July, as well as a postseason game,” he said.
He reached all of his goals and then some. His was the first individual one-hitter in League Championship Series play (There was a combined one-hitter). His 15 strikeouts matched an ALCS record.
Clemens made it clear early that he was boss. He threw high and tight on his first two pitches to the Mariners’ Alex Rodriguez in the first.
“I don’t think the first one was that close,” Clemens said. “The second one I think was closer. I was just trying to go at his hands inside (on the first pitch), and, actually, for strikes, both times.”
The Mariners knew exactly what Clemens was doing: Establishing his turf. Don’t get too comfortable up there, fellas. Stay loose.
“After that, he didn’t have too much trouble throwing the ball around the dish,” Cameron said. “He delivered his message.”
After the hit by Martin, the Yankee bullpen came to life. Maybe Clemens sensed it. Because he obviously wanted to finish what he started. And he retired nine of the last 10 batters, giving up only the walk to Olerud.
“It probably reminded me of (Bob) Gibson more than any other pitcher, just the way he hitched up the belt and went after people,” Torre said. “It’s not like going through the seven, eight and nine guys. You’re going through the middle of the lineup. I can’t tell you how impressed I was with Roger tonight.”
As were the Mariners.
Cameron said he didn’t go up to the plate looking for any particular pitch, but he knew the fastball was a given most of the time. And Clemens was still throwing it in the mid-90s in the late innings.
“You can go up looking for a splitter if you want to,” Cameron said, “but you may get splinters in your ass.” Clemens has never pitched a no-hitter and he wasn’t thinking about one even in the middle innings. He went in to change shirts at one point and the TV in the clubhouse was on but the volume was turned down.
“They flashed the boxscore in the fourth and I noticed it again in the fifth and that was it, really,” he said. “At this point, I just continue to tell myself, ‘Let’s win the game.’ “
Giving full attention to the job at hand, Roger Clemens accomplished his mission.
And now, the Yankees are one victory away from theirs.
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