- Phil Rogers
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CHICAGO -- Juan Acevedo?
Why Juan Acevedo?
"Because he's on the ballclub," Joe Torre answered. "He's pitched in big games before. I'm trying to get one out there."
When the New York Yankees' worst reliever wandered out of the bullpen to replace Roger Clemens with two outs, two on and the Yankees clinging to a 1-0 lead in the seventh, some wondered if Torre was trying to turn Clemens' pursuit of his 300th victory into a diamond version of "Cats."
Sure enough, Eric Karros drove the first pitch from Acevedo out of Wrigley Field. The homer gave the Cubs a 3-1 lead in a game they would go on to win 5-2 Saturday afternoon. More importantly, it also meant that Clemens' start would end like his previous two -- failing to become the 21st pitcher to win 300.
Clemens, later revealed to be dealing with a respiratory infection, was left to shout at plate umpire Dan Iassogna from the dugout. He declined to address the throng of reporters who were covering the Yankees' first visit to Wrigley Field since the 1938 World Series.
Acevedo, to his credit, apologized to Clemens for letting the lead get away. He then patiently took questions from reporters.
Like Torre, Acevedo did not feel the Yankees had been pressing because of Clemens' run at history. They couldn't say last Sunday in Detroit when they let a 7-1 lead get away. And they couldn't say that on May 26 at Yankee Stadium, when they dropped an 8-4 decision to Boston.
"Maybe the first couple of games it bothered us," Acevedo said about the weight of No. 300. "But today, no, we just faced Kerry Wood. He pitched a great game today. It just came down to whether I was able to get (out) a hitter I've had good success against in the past. I just didn't get it done.''
Torre isn't sure when Clemens will make his fourth try for 300. The schedule indicates next Friday in New York against St. Louis.
But Torre indicated that Clemens' physical condition might push him back until Saturday's game against the Cardinals. If Clemens was pushed back one day, he would then be on track to face the Mets on June 20 at Shea Stadium rather than getting a home start against Tampa Bay June 19.
This is getting interesting.
"I'm disappointed," Torre said, talking with a pack of reporters on the bench rather than in his tiny office in the visiting clubhouse. "I wish to hell we would have scored half a dozen runs, but Kerry Wood wouldn't have it."
No, he wouldn't. On a day when Wrigley felt like the epicenter of the baseball universe, Wood upstaged the fellow Texan he had grown up idolizing.
With glorious weather for late spring, hundreds of Chicagoans took their sailboats out onto Lake Michigan for the first time since last September. Along Waveland and Sheffield Avenues, fans packed the rooftops of brownstones and crammed into windows to catch a view of the Clemens vs. Wood duel.
Outside Wrigley, fans paid ridiculous sums of money for scalped tickets -- some rumors reached upwards of $1,500 -- and more than a few wound up with counterfeit tickets. But there were few complaints from the 39,363 who did get inside the quirky old park.
The only unpleasant part of the day was watching Cubs first baseman Hee Seop Choi leave the field in an ambulance after a fourth-inning collision with Wood. Choi grabbed a pop by Jason Giambi and then became tangled with Wood, spinning around and falling backward onto the third-base line.
"That ground's going to be like cement on a [sunny] day like this," Yankees third baseman Robin Ventura said.
Choi was held overnight at Illinois Masonic Hospital with what the Cubs described as a concussion.
Wood and Clemens matched zeroes into the fifth inning, with both throwing fastballs that registered 97 and 98 mph. If not for Hideki Matsui driving a 3-2 breaking pitch out of the park in the fifth, Wood would have taken a no-hitter into the eighth. He wound up with 11 strikeouts and three hits allowed in 7 2-3 innings -- and he could argue that it should have been 12 strikeouts.
Wood almost struck out Matsui twice during the sequence that led to the home run. Third-base umpire Laz Diaz didn't give him the call on a two-strike check swing. Iassogna then gave Matsui the benefit of the doubt on a 2-2 pitch that must have been just inside.
Former Mets manager Bobby Valentine, watching from the press box, said Wood had "no-hit stuff." Torre didn't disagree.
"It was great," Torre said of the pitching matchup. "It was the first time I've seen [Wood]. He just looks like a pitcher. The ball comes out of his hand easy. It was neat that they matched up because that's what Roger looked like years ago."
Clemens may be 40 but he hardly looks washed up. He gave up just two hits in the first six innings and even helped himself out with a fielding play, springing off the mound to get an out at third base on a bunt attempt in the sixth. Yet Torre had two relievers up when the seventh began.
Few seemed to know it but Clemens was struggling with his stamina because of the respiratory condition. "I really didn't think it affected my pitching," Clemens said in a statement issued by the Yankees. "I just took a little more time between my pitches."
With one out in the seventh, Sammy Sosa singled through the left side of the infield. When pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre visited the mound, he was buying time for Clemens to catch his breath after the eight-pitch battle with Sosa.
Clemens then fell behind Moises Alou before walking him on five pitches. Torre said later that Clemens felt Iassogna had missed the first two pitches in that sequence, putting him in a hole. Clemens had thrown just 84 pitches -- 49 fewer than Torre allowed him to in his first attempt at 300 -- but this time that was all he had in his tank.
Torre hoped Acevedo could retire the right-handed-hitting Karros, which would have allowed him to bring in lefty Chris Hammond to face Lenny Harris. But Karros connected on Acevedo's first pitch, reminding everyone that these are strange times for the Pinstripes. Their $160-million payroll hasn't kept them from going 17-23 since April 24.
You wonder what Clemens would have said had he met with reporters instead of issuing a brief statement.
"I went long and hard the whole day," he told a representative of the Yankees. "It just didn't work out. With the game being close, they just needed one big hit and they got it."
Wood won his 50th and perhaps a new level of respect. Clemens remains at 299 and (very slowly) counting.
Did somebody mention the longest-running show on Broadway?
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.
Juan Acevedo? Why Juan Acevedo?