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Clemens turning back the clock

With its retractable roof, sliding back and forth over the playing surface, and its many amenities, Minute Maid Park in Houston looks vaguely like someone's idea of the baseball ballpark of tomorrow, athletic facility as Futurama.

But a closer inspection reveals that Minute Maid Park may actually be a time machine, capable of taking everyone inside back to the future.

How else to explain what is taking part there this season?

Inside, a man, who will soon turn 42, is pitching like someone half his age. He's off to a 6-0 start with a 2.11 ERA and opposing batters are hitting a paltry .193 against him.

His fastball still has extra zip, his split-fingered fastball still powers through the nether regions of the strike zone. His form is still perfect -- controlled and explosive all at once.

If he continues at this rate, he will likely be picked to start this summer's All-Star Game in his hometown.

Is this 2004 or 1986?

Is this the present or some eery reconstruction of the past?

This, still, is Roger Clemens, now wearing his fourth uniform, making his first swing through the National League and still making batters quake.

Forget the calendar, forget the countless innings and the retirement tour that wasn't. Some things never change.

"There's not a better pitcher in baseball right now,'' says teammate Lance Berkman.

The same could have been said by a Red Sox teammate in 1986. Or a Blue Jay in 1997. Or a Yankee in 2001. The years roll along, bodies age, glory fades.

But not Clemens.

"There's nothing new here,'' says a National League scout who has watched Clemens this year. "He's pretty much the same guy he's always been. He's probably lost a little bit (in terms of velocity), but not much. And he's still got that splitter.''

The arrival of Clemens and Andy Pettitte from New York has re-invigorated the entire Astros franchise. The sting of habitual first-round exits from the postseason -- or falling just shy of qualifying for the playoffs, as happened last September -- had marginalized the Astros in Houston, where football is king.

But beginning with the signing of Pettitte last December, followed by Clemens' emergence from the briefest of retirements, the Astros grabbed the city's attention by the collar. Tickets sold at a record pace. A sense of expectation percolated throughout the winter. Houston -- get this -- talked baseball, even as it played host to the Super Bowl.

Anyone who thought Clemens would see this season as a handy opportunity to merely pitch in his hometown while making one last farewell sweep didn't know Clemens well. Renowned for his tireless work ethic, his pride remains as strong as his sturdy physique.

But at 41, no one quite expected this.

"This is a made-for-TV story,'' gushes Gerry Hunsicker, the Astros' general manager. "We couldn't have written the script any better.''

Clemens is known for his terrific starts, as are many pitching greats who traditionally take advantage of cold weather and slow bats in the first month of the season. In winning the National League's Pitcher of the Month award for April, he lowered his April ERA to 2.75, his lowest career mark of any month.

Still, Clemens has some distance to go to equal the best start of his career. In 1986, his second full season with the Red Sox, he sprinted to a 14-0 start in his first 15 outings with a 2.18 ERA. Amazingly, he didn't get saddled with a loss until July 2.

That year, Clemens went on to win his first of six Cy Young Awards and pitched the Red Sox to their last pennant.

No doubt, Clemens has been aided by switching leagues after two decades in the American League.

"Generally,'' acknowledges Hunsicker, "pitchers have the advantage over hitters (when they change leagues).''

That's especially true for pitchers who go from the AL to the NL, where the DH doesn't exist and the bottom third of the batting orders are considerably weaker than their AL counterparts.

"That's huge,'' confirms a major-league GM. "I don't care what anyone says about (using the same) umpires or interleague play -- there's still a difference. You can never let up in the American League. There are guys hitting ninth who can beat you. But in the National League, you can take a little bit of a breather (when you get to the bottom of the order). For a guy like Clemens who has to preserve his strength, that's signficant.''

For good measure, Clemens is being carefully monitored by manager Jimy Williams, who is known for protecting his starters and relying on his bullpen. Clemens has yet to pitch past the seventh inning, and it's doubtful that he'll add much -- if at all -- to his career complete game total of 117.

After all, Williams and the Astros have to take the long view -- past the turn-back-the-clock April, past, even, the All-Star Game, which he likely will start.

They must look ahead to the stretch run of the season and to October, where they hope Clemens' presence will really pay off.

It's worth noting that in 1986, after his 14-0 start, Clemens wound up the season in similar fashion. After being on the short end of a 1-0 decision Aug. 4, Clemens didn't lose again, winning his last seven decisions.

For all his April and May brilliance, Clemens knows better than most: It's not how you start; it's how you finish.

But, oh, what a start to this finish.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.