On the launchpad: Clemens ready for season debut

Updated: June 22, 2006, 7:30 PM ET
Associated Press

HOUSTON -- Roger Clemens is prepared for his 2006 major league debut on Thursday night against the Minnesota Twins just 23 days and three minor league starts after rejoining the Houston Astros.

But the 43-year-old seven-time Cy Young winner doesn't think the return would have been possible if not for one little reason -- his son Koby's injured pinky finger.

Before you watch Roger Clemens make his return to the Astros Thursday night on ESPN, don't miss the 6-hour Classic Flamethrowers: Roger Clemens at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN Classic.

Playing in the World Baseball Classic, followed by Koby returning home after the injury forced him into more intense training during his off time than he would have done otherwise.

"I don't know if I'd be here today," he said. "I don't know if I would have made that commitment because I advanced a little bit farther. It was somewhat of my spring training."

His first start comes exactly eight months after his last major league appearance, when he left Game 1 of the World Series with a strained hamstring.

Clemens, who wears jersey No. 22, re-signed with the Astros for a one-year contract worth $22,000,022 to play his 23rd major league season. Since he's joining the team late, he'll get a percentage of that amount -- about $12.25 million.

In his Class A start for the Lexington Legends, where he played alongside Koby, he allowed an early home run then struck out six and walked none in three innings. In act two at Double-A Corpus Christi he struck out 11 to tie a team record for strikeouts and in his Triple-A start Friday, he allowed three runs and struck out five in 5 2/3 innings.

Clemens said he knows his pitch count will be watched carefully by Astros manager Phil Garner and pitching coach Jim Hickey. He hopes to last between 100-110 pitches.

Short Hops
When Roger Clemens starts Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) at home against the Twins, you will see the real deal. He has set the bar very high for himself, and the people in the organization have set the bar high too.

To read more of Orel Hershiser's analysis in the Wednesday night Short Hops, click here.

"I'm going to try to be as honest as I can with them on how I feel," Clemens said. "I've done the work to prepare myself. I think my arm is where I want it to be. My legs, I still think I can get a little more endurance and stamina there."

He's eager to "get it going" with his teammates in the majors and said he'll remind himself of a few things when he takes the mound: "Staying tall, not rushing, not trying to overdo things until I know I'm good and hot," he said.

"If I'm feeling good I'm going to let some balls go. If not I'll have to pitch a little bit more and expand the plate."

Unfortunately for the Twins, Clemens' comeback coincides with the first series between the two teams in five years. Clemens has the highest win total of any pitcher against Minnesota with a 23-12 record and a 3.01 ERA.

When told of the glowing things Twins players were saying of him, Clemens blew it off.

"I think they're just trying to butter me up," he said with a laugh.

But regardless of who the opposition is, Astros fans will expect no less than greatness from The Rocket from the start.

And that's OK with Clemens.

"They should," he said. "I know I'm going to have some bumps in the road, but I expect to do well. I told you all along I wouldn't have started this a long time ago if I wasn't feeling that I could come back and help."

The Astros started out hot and had a 19-10 record on May 5. A month later they sank to 27-31 but have since rebounded to move above .500 and are in third place in the NL Central, seven games behind St. Louis.

"Obviously he makes us better so we're just continuing that push to get to the playoffs and looking forward to him helping us be able to get there," said Astros lefty Andy Pettitte.

Clemens was 13-8 with a career-best 1.87 ERA in 32 starts for Houston last season. His record suffered because his starts were often plagued by a lack of run support. The Astros were shut out in nine of his starts and scored two or less in five others.

"Last year we weren't able to win the games like we should have when he pitched," Pettitte said. "So hopefully we can play a little bit better when he takes the mound than we did last year and that will translate into a lot more wins for us."

While the Astros welcome back their longtime star, the Twins will get another look at their rookie phenom Francisco Liriano. Liriano, who is 6-1 with a 2.16 ERA, was seven months old in 1984 when Clemens began his career with the Red Sox.

Clemens called Liriano part of the future of baseball and said he won't be able to enjoy watching him pitch, but that fans and the other players will get a treat.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, a former Texas Longhorn player like Clemens, said it will be "fun" to see him back on the mound and said his work ethic has allowed him to continue to excel at 43.

But don't think Gardenhire will be rooting for the fellow Longhorn.

"Hopefully he'll have the ends of his horns chopped up a little bit down here," he said.

Clemens, an 11-time All-Star and winner of the 1986 AL MVP Award, has a career record of 341-172 with a 3.12 ERA and 4,502 strikeouts. He's the winningest living pitcher and is ninth on the career wins list and second in career strikeouts behind Nolan Ryan (5,714).

The Astros made room for Clemens on the roster by optioning right-hander Chris Sampson to Triple-A Round Rock on Wednesday night.

Sampson, a rookie, made four appearances, including one start, after he was called up from Round Rock on June 2. He pitched seven strong innings in a 1-0 win over the Cubs on June 7, allowing only three hits and a walk.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press