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Clemens' return lifts Yankees

In his first big league start in nearly nine months, he strikes out seven in six innings to beat Pirates, 9-3.

June 10, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As he walked toward the bullpen Saturday to warm up for his first major league start in nearly nine months, Roger Clemens took a detour toward Yankee Stadium's Monument Park. Stopping before the plaque of Babe Ruth, Clemens reached out with his right hand and wiped the Babe's brow.

It was the Yankees' storied tradition -- as well as their $28-million prorated contract offer -- that Clemens said brought him out of retirement last month for the third time since he left New York four years ago. And after pausing to pay homage to that history, the 44-year-old went out and added to Yankees lore, helping beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 9-3.

"This is the start of something we hope will be very special for us the rest of the way," said Yankees Manager Joe Torre, who hasn't gotten his team to the World Series since Clemens left in 2003, accepting a Hummer from his teammates as a parting gift.

Special, however, probably won't be enough to help the Yankees win their 10th consecutive American League East title. For that they'll need something, well, historic since they started the day trailing the Boston Red Sox by 10 1/2 games in the division race.

That's where Clemens comes in.

"When he's on your side," Torre said "you just feel like you've got an advantage. He's always been that guy, and he's always done special things."

Saturday, for example, he took a game involving two teams a combined 12 games under .500 and gave it a playoff atmosphere. A buzz swept through the stadium even before the sellout crowd of 54,296 came to its feet when Clemens walked to the mound for the first inning. He got a longer ovation six innings later when he walked slowly off the mound, Elton John's "Rocket Man" playing over the stadium loudspeakers.

"The energy that it brings and the excitement, it's good to see," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said.

Clemens said he felt it too, which may have contributed to his shaky start. Jose Bautista, the first batter Clemens faced, lined his sixth pitch foul down the left-field line, missing a home run by a couple of feet, then singled sharply to right two pitches later. After Clemens wild-pitched him to second, Bautista scored on Adam LaRoche's two-out single to right.

But though the seven-time Cy Young Award winner was never dominant, he did settle down after LaRoche's single, giving up only three more hits -- including Jack Wilson's two-run double -- over the next 5 1/3 innings. He also struck out seven and retired the last seven batters he faced, the final two on strikeouts.

"You sort of became a fan," Torre said. "You wanted it to be good. You sort of take yourself out of the manager's spot. And you're just going to watch. Because you trust him. He knows what he's doing."

The final two strikeouts were the 4,610th and 4,611th of Clemens' career, moving him past Randy Johnson into second place all-time. And when the Yankees scored three times in the first and three more times in Clemens' final two innings, he had his 349th win as well.

"It's just great to be back," said Clemens, who threw 108 pitches, 69 for strikes. "Bottom line is, I feel really blessed. It worked out well."

Anyone expecting to see the vintage Clemens was probably disappointed, though.

With his fastball topping 91 mph only once, he was hardly intimidating, relying primarily on his splitter and a two-seam fastball he kept in the mid-80s. And the once-athletic pitcher, still bothered by a sore groin that delayed his comeback five days, was noticeably hobbled when he had to field his position.

"My biggest hurdle was my legs today," he said. "I just don't want to go backward with that. I expect to get stronger each time from here out."

Even in his weakened state, Clemens was able to lift the suddenly red-hot Yankees, who have won five in a row and eight of their last 10.

"We're doing lots of good things now," Posada said.

Added Clemens, flanked by youngest sons Kacy and Kody at a postgame news conference: "I'm going to savor this moment. I know what's ahead of us. And it's a lot of work."

And, the Yankees hope, a little more history as well.

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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