By Jonah Keri
Special to Page 2

Baseball fans who tuned in to watch Thursday night's Twins-Astros game got a rare treat. After all, it's not every day you get to see one of the most dominating pitchers in the game, a strikeout machine whose fastball gives hitters nightmares, an intimidating mound presence capable of winning a game by himself.

Oh yeah, and Roger Clemens was pitching too.

The return of the Rocket was the big story heading into the game. But it was 22-year-old Twins phenom Francisco Liriano who stole the show, dazzling the Astros with an array of vicious pitches, thrown from a three-quarter arm angle that makes him nearly as scary as vintage Roger. The Twins went on to win the game 4-2, and America was introduced to the next pitching superstar.

That wasn't how the script was supposed to go. Clemens was making his first start of the season, in front of a packed house, with the national spotlight shining on two third-place teams on a random June night, thanks entirely to him. The game capped off one of the most surreal preambles in recent history:

• His 1.87 ERA last season was the lowest since Pedro Martinez posted two sub-2 ERAs in three seasons with the Red Sox and Expos in the late '90s. Pedro was squarely in his prime then, the best pitcher peak since Koufax. Clemens turned 43 last year.

• The Will He/Won't He Retire saga never seemed to die in the offseason. Hot Stove League followers, desperate to glean a nugget of information on the Rocket's future, instead got to read 3,729 stories about Clemens' desire to be closer to his wife Debbie and four sons Kory, Kacy, Kody and Koby, a minor-league third baseman for the Astros. (K is the symbol for a strikeout in baseball -- get it? Oh, Rocket Roger, you Rambunctious Rogue.) Not since 1960 Cy Young winner Vern Law and wife VaNita spawned Veldon, Veryl, Vaughn, Varlin, VaLynda, and major-league third baseman Vance has a baseball family run a name routine this far into the ground.

• As the suspense built over his possible return, Clemens took the mound for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. He was in peak form, yielding just 2 runs in 8 2/3 innings, striking out 10 and walking none.

• Clemens' rehab starts became national events, shrunk down to small-town dimensions. A total of 131 reporters and photographers descended on Applebee's Park in Lexington, Ky. to see Clemens pitch. The Lexington clubhouse went from dingy dungeon to the home of high-end leather couches, love seats and chairs, and a $2,000 42-inch plasma HDTV, all thanks to Clemens. Columnists made a cottage industry out of the teenager-hits-once-in-a-lifetime-homer-off-the-legend stories.

• Before the minor-league coronation tour, four front-runners had emerged as candidates to win Clemens' services: The Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and Astros. While Yankees and Red Sox fans crashed the message boards and sports talk radio, Rangers überfan Jamey Newberg held daily round-the-clock vigils. In the end, Clemens chose the Astros. There was no hometown discount: Clemens signed for $22 million, which pro-rates to about $12 million and change for a little over three months of work.

And yet, he might well be worth it. Late in the 2002 season, baseball savant Keith Woolner and I looked at Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux and other legends to pick the greatest living pitcher. Combining career and peak value, weighing all the variables and comparing all those greats, Clemens was the greatest.

Incredibly, impossibly, Clemens has gotten gradually better since then. In 2003, his ERA was 12 percent better than league average. In 2004, he was 45 percent better. Last year, he was a ridiculous 121 percent better than the rest of the field.

He's arrived just in time this season. The Astros are the National League's version of the Oakland A's, a team that mysteriously gets off to slow starts seemingly every season, gets counted out, then comes storming back into the race, often into the playoffs. Houston came into Thursday's game six games behind the first-place Cardinals, two games over .500 after spending much of the early season below break-even.

Two things became obvious as the game wore on: Liriano might be the best young pitcher in baseball, and the Astros need bats in a big way, maybe more than they need Clemens. The Astros trot out multiple offensive black holes in Adam Everett (.232 batting average/.292 on-base percentage/.330 slugging average coming into the game), Preston Wilson (.278/.313/.417 -- middling power, never walks, brutal numbers for an everyday corner outfielder), and Brad Ausmus (seven straight seasons slugging .353 or less). Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg are among the best. But there are no superstar hitters lurking in the high minors or the DL. Jeff Bagwell isn't walking through that door, and neither are Jimmy Wynn or Cesar Cedeño. They'll need to add a bat or three to have a shot at October baseball.

The Twins' offense was one of the few that looked worse than Houston's this year. Rondell White's having a historically awful season (.182/.209/.215). Tony Batista, one of the worst 100-RBI men ever three years ago, played his way off the team. The Twins gave Juan Castro the starting shortstop job for the first two-and-a-half months of the season, which had about as much chance of succeeding as "Poseidon."

The emergence of three young, lefty hitters has pushed the Twins to 10 victories in their last 12 games, all the way above .500. Joe Mauer leads the league in hitting, Justin Morneau ranks among the leaders in homers and Jason Kubel looks recovered from the knee injury that temporarily derailed his status as a hot hitting prospect. With Johan Santana and Liriano at the top of the rotation, this team suddenly looks dangerous.

Early on, Joe Morgan noted that the key to Clemens' success isn't his velocity, but his great command. That was Liriano, all night. He got ahead of hitters all game long, throwing mostly sliders and changeups on the first pitch. He spotted his pitches anywhere he wanted. In the third inning, he threw a fastball on the outside black that was so nasty, it splintered Ausmus' bat. In the fourth, he toyed with Craig Biggio, throwing nothing but sliders and changeups, finally striking him out on a change that made Biggio nearly windmill himself into the ground. In the sixth, he fired a 96-mph fastball on the inside corner that made Everett stare in disbelief -- then again, Ted Williams wouldn't have hit that pitch. Liriano stormed through the first six innings facing the minimum number of batters. In the seventh he worked around a leadoff walk by inducing a Chris Burke pop-up, a Berkman lineout on an 0-2 count, and an Ensberg strikeout on an unhittable 87-mph slider.

Liriano made one mistake, giving up a two-run line-drive homer to Jason Lane in the eighth, giving him a final line of 8 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 7 K. Considering how overmatched the Astros looked all night, the home run was shocking. That's how good Francisco Liriano is -- it's jarring to see him miss, even once. With a tough three-quarter delivery that destroys lefties, a scorching heater, deadly slider and a changeup that's a worthy understudy to Santana's, he could be a Cy Young candidate by next season.

And Clemens? He battled. The Rocket needed 100 pitches to get through five tough innings. That included a 38-pitch marathon in the third, in which the Twins reached him for two runs. But there were glimpses of the Clemens of old. His fastball showed good signs of life. His legs looked intact, especially when he bounded off the mound to complete a 3-6-1 double play on Mauer. His splitter looked great in spots, except against Morneau, who reached base all four times he came up, with a walk, single, double and homer.

(The funniest moment of the game came when Morgan praised Clemens for his ability to keep the ball down. "Roger's very well-equipped to handle left-handed hitters, simply because he has the splitter," he said. "And that pitch moves down and away from them." Two pitches later, Morneau cranked a double to right-center on a splitter below the knees. "Sometimes left-handed hitters are better low-ball hitters," Morgan explained. "So some of these balls that he throws low they might be able to hammer.")

At game's end the two teams both sat with near-identical records, each with two great hitters, a suspect supporting cast, two aces and a great closer, both long shots to make the playoffs this year. Who's got the better future? Consider this: Liriano was born less about seven months before Clemens threw his first big-league pitch.

Yikes. The Astros might want to think again about the Clemens comeback plan. In fact, they might be best off sending him home again with Debbie. The team needs more talent, pronto. Just two more to go to match Vern and VaNita.

Jonah Keri is the editor and co-author of the new book Baseball Between the Numbers. You can reach him at jonahkeri@gmail.com.




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LIRIANO VS. CLEMENS