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BOSTON'S ROGER CLEMENS : All Hail the New Strikeout King

May 13, 1986|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

Roger Clemens remembers. He remembers sitting by the bullpen railing at the Houston Astrodome, an impressionable youngster, and listening for the explosion Nolan Ryan's warmup pitches made when they hit the catcher's mitt.

Steve Crawford remembers. He remembers sitting in the Boston Red Sox bullpen at Fenway Park April 29 and hearing a similar explosion.

On this occasion, Roger Clemens was delivering the pitches, and though Crawford was more than 400 feet away, he didn't have to see to understand.

"Pa-boom. That was the sound," a still awed Crawford said in recalling the night Clemens struck out 20 Seattle Mariners. "You could hear it all over New England."

In 111 seasons and more than 147,000 games, no major league pitcher had struck out more than 19 major league hitters in the span of nine innings.

The record was shared by Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Clemens' idol, Ryan. The kid known as Rocket had shot past the Express.

"I was amazed watching it," Red Sox Manager John McNamara said in Oakland the other day. "Then I went home to watch the replay and became even more appreciative.

"He was outside, inside, throwing all of his pitches for strikes. He was in total command. It was as if he could do anything he wanted.

"I saw the perfect games that Catfish Hunter and Mike Witt pitched. I saw Seaver throw some outstanding games when he was pitching for me in Cincinnati, and I watched Ryan in '78 when I was coaching with the Angels.

"But to me, this was the most awesome pitching performance I've ever seen."

If Dwight Gooden is Dr. K, Clemens has earned his residency, but there is more to the 23-year-old right-hander than a fastball that is clocked consistently between 92 and 97 m.p.h.

Clemens is said to throw an equally devastating curve, slider and changeup. Or as Bill Fisher, the Boston pitching coach, put it:

"He's not a one-pitch pitcher, he's a four-pitch pitcher."

Aside from Gooden, Clemens may have better control than any young power pitcher ever.

"Mercy," Oakland Manager Jackie Moore pleaded after Clemens pitched twice against the A's in the wake of his record performance against Seattle, striking out 21 more and walking only 2 in 16 innings.

Said Moore: "You gear up to hit what looks like a good strike, then boom, it's 90 miles per hour out of the strike zone.

"But he's not just some kid who rears back, throws the ball by you, then gives you the chance to catch up to him in the late innings.

"He knows how to pitch, moves the ball around, keeps you off balance and never walks anyone."

Clemens threw 97 strikes and 41 balls in his walkless performance against Seattle.

He will pitch against the Angels Wednesday night at Anaheim Stadium having walked only 12 in the 49 innings of 6 starts, striking out a major league leading 60 on the way to a 5-0 record and a 1.99 earned-run average.

In the 25 innings of his last three starts, Clemens has walked only two while tying Ryan's American League record of 41 strikeouts in three consecutive nine-inning games. He has pitched 281 major league innings, striking out 260 and walking 88, or fewer than three every nine innings.

"He's probably the best full-count pitcher in baseball," pitching coach Fisher said, meaning that Clemens is capable of throwing a strike with any of his pitches at any time.

Said catcher Rich Gedman: "He's an artist, the way he moves the ball around. He works hitters the way a pitcher with twice his experience would."

Added McNamara: "Ryan battled his control, and so did (Sandy) Koufax, at least in the beginning. I wasn't in the National League when Seaver came up, but everyone agrees he was a master from the start. If you're comparing the exceptional arms, I think Clemens is probably closest to Seaver."

Said Clemens: "I wouldn't even know how to teach control other than with mechanics, and my mechanics have always been there. Most power pitchers walk four or five guys a game. I can't explain why I don't except that mechanics have never been a problem for me."

The problem has been his health.

Clemens was first summoned by the Red Sox in May, 1984, less than a year after helping pitch Texas to the College World Series championship.

He went 9-4 in 21 appearances, struck out 126 batters in 133 innings, generated instant comparisons to Gooden, then strained a muscle in his right forearm and was sidelined for the rest of the year.

"That was a front-office decision," Clemens said. "I could have pitched."

Last year, 4-2 in May, Clemens became aware of discomfort in his right shoulder. He continued to pitch, attempting to get by on his breaking stuff, then finally gave in while warming up for a start July 7 in Anaheim. He had won 7 of 12 decisions despite a fragmenting of the cartilage that protects the rotator cuff.

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