Yankees feed off Clemens' presence
NEW YORK -- Yankees reliever Mike Myers had so anticipated the moment that he planned an early seat in the dugout. A few of the Pirates also trickled out to the field prematurely. But when it came time for Roger Clemens' grand entrance -- the starting pitcher's customary walk to the bullpen -- expectations fell somewhat flat with a crowd still trying to make its way into the ballpark.
"It wasn't as loud as I thought it would be," Myers said about Clemens' initial reception. "It was sort of subdued."
As for the 44-year-old's return to a major league mound Saturday for the first time in nearly nine months, it could hardly be deemed a dud considering the outcome, a 9-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. But the energy and electricity were mostly absent until the final inning Clemens pitched.
He walked off the mound after an 84-mph splitter -- his 108th pitch of the day -- left Pirates right fielder Ryan Doumit flailing for Clemens's seventh and final strikeout of the day. It ended the top of the sixth inning with the Yankees up 4-3 and made it possible for Clemens to capture his first win as a Yankee since the 2003 American League Championship Series.
The matinee crowd of 54,296 -- tepid until that point -- stood and cheered upon Clemens' departure, and with each step he took toward the Yankees' dugout, its chorus grew louder and louder to the decibel level that Myers had anticipated all along. Derek Jeter playfully tapped Clemens on the rear before teammates and coaches peppered the right-hander with fist-pumps and high-fives. Clemens then retreated into the clubhouse, failing to come out for a much-wanted curtain call.
It was then, it seemed, that the stadium and the team began to feed off the energy. The bottom of the sixth inning followed with Melky Cabrera's one-out walk, the first of four straight Yankees to reach base, and it continued with two double steals in the frame and Bobby Abreu's RBI single for a 5-3 lead. A sacrifice fly by Alex Rodriguez gave the Yanks a three-run cushion, and the mood had officially shifted.
"With Roger going out there, we sort of felt we were going to try and do anything we could to support him," manager Joe Torre said. "Players were really upbeat today. And I think part of it obviously was about Roger, but the rest of it was about how we're feeling about ourselves."
And as Torre repeatedly emphasized, the feeling is becoming more optimistic by the day. The Yankees won their fifth straight game and eighth of 10 overall. The team that was 5½ games out of first place when Clemens dramatically announced his comeback from owner George Steinbrenner's luxury box on May 6 is now 10 behind the Red Sox. But what once appeared headed toward a dead season now feels as though hope may not be lost.
Torre believes Clemens' initial start was just the beginning, that his 89-91 mph fastballs will gain more life and his command will improve. Clemens, who signed a $22 million comeback deal, was laboring at times to get through certain at-bats, Torre said.
For his part, Clemens said his biggest concern was his body, keeping it healthy after a fatigued groin had pushed his debut back by five days.
"My body, that's the major concern," he said. "I knew that if my body held up I could give Joe a 100-, 120-pitch performance. I think each start now I expect to get stronger."
It's great to be back. I've got to take a little deep breath now. I understand the excitement that's there and the expectations that are there, and there's a lot of both.
Before the game, the Pirates, a sub-.500 team comprised of mostly young players, prepared to face the seven-time Cy Young winner by watching the movie "American Wedding," a teenage comedy. Shortstop Jack Wilson, who's been with the team for seven seasons, said they were honored to be part of Clemens' moment and were excited about playing in a playoff-type atmosphere. He also joked when asked how many people knew 24-year-old Paul Maholm was the starting pitcher for the Pirates.
"Well, there are 25 guys on our team," Wilson said, "and there are a good amount of Pirate fans in the stands."
Maholm (2-9) kept his team in the game until he and the bullpen fell apart in the sixth. And it was the Pirates' miscues (two errors) and free-swinging tendencies that helped Clemens through his day.
"I think he's motivated right now," said catcher Ronny Paulino, who went 0-for-3 with a walk. "Especially for a guy that's going to be a Hall of Famer."
Clemens' successful return was just a start. The Yankees are just two games under .500, and they hope the energy that grew as the game went on will continue well beyond
"It's great to be back," he said, with two of his sons flanking him during the postgame press conference. "I've got to take a little deep breath now. I understand the excitement that's there and the expectations that are there, and there's a lot of both."
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com.