Commentary

Yankees counting on Clemens to save season

Originally Published: October 6, 2007
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The details of the night of Oct. 17, 2003, otherwise known as Game 7 of the American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Yankees, remain seared into baseball consciousness and do not require much recap: Grady Little took a chance with Pedro Martinez in a memorable eighth inning, a move that would cost him his job. Martinez, the legend who nevertheless could not be trusted by himself to vanquish the Yankees, would be forced to share the stage with Curt Schilling the next year, with championship results.

AL DIVISION SERIES

Yankees-Indians
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There were heroes that night: Aaron Boone's home run off Tim Wakefield in the 11th inning completed one of the greatest moments in a ballpark that has seen its share. David Ortiz's home run off David Wells appeared to seal a pennant for Boston, fueling his reputation as the big-time hitter of his generation. Mike Mussina pitched valiantly in the middle innings, keeping a tense game close enough to make a comeback possible. There was Jorge Posada, who doubled home the tying runs against Martinez in a frenzied eighth. And there was the winning pitcher, Mariano Rivera, who pitched three innings and collapsed in spiritual, glorious exhaustion on the pitcher's mound when it ended.

Less remembered -- and less regarded at the time -- was the starting pitcher for the Yankees. It was Roger Clemens, who trailed 4-0 with nobody out in the fourth inning when he walked off the field. He seemed old and withered, unable to contain a hungry Boston team intent on sending him into retirement.

Joe Torre
AP Photo/Mark DuncanIt's been a tough October for Joe Torre and the Yankees so far.
It was the last time Clemens pitched in a postseason game in Yankee Stadium, but here he is once again, four years later. Clemens has retired three times but pitched in two World Series since that night, and now he stands between the Yankees and elimination in this AL Division Series. The Yankees trail two games to none to a Cleveland club that couldn't beat them in the regular season. But the Tribe battered the Yankees 12-3 in Game 1 and won Game 2 2-1 in 11 innings, a game that turned when a swarm of bugs -- Lake Erie midges, they're called -- swarmed the field and shook previously invincible Joba Chamberlain. Protecting a 1-0 lead in the eighth, Chamberlain walked two, hit a batter and chucked two wild pitches, the second tying the score. Travis Hafner won it in the 11th with a bases-loaded single off Luis Vizcaino.

In a town that gravitates toward star power, the Yankees have plenty of individuals in focus. Clemens is the first, but there also is Alex Rodriguez, who comes home for Sunday night's Game 3 hitless in six at-bats with three strikeouts.

The Indians are a game from the ALCS because of pitching. Their two starters, C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, and reliever Rafael Perez have diminished the most potent lineup in baseball. Derek Jeter is hitting .125 with three strikeouts. Hideki Matsui is 0-for-7. Posada, who will receive votes for Most Valuable Player this season, is struggling, missing on two key opportunities to lift New York in the opener. The Yankees are hitting .121 after two games. They've scored four runs on three home runs.

Rodriguez and the offense faces the most scrutiny -- the byproduct of a collective postseason slump that hasn't really dissipated since the Red Sox comeback in the 2004 ALCS -- but the key difference with the Yankees' postseason makeup from the early days of the Joe Torre dynasty is the pitching. During the glory years of 1996-2000, when the Yankees won four World Series titles in five years (including three straight), New York had an abundance of ace pitchers, tough interchangeable veterans who could all pitch an elimination game without a drop in quality or confidence. If it wasn't Clemens, it was El Duque or Andy Pettitte, Jimmy Key or David Cone, Dwight Gooden or Wells.

Roger Clemens

Clemens

Starting Pitcher
New York Yankees

Profile

2007 Season Stats
GM W L BB K ERA
18 6 6 31 68 4.18

The Yankees paid Clemens $14 million for 17 starts this season to return that dimension, to pitch on the razor's edge. On Saturday at Yankee Stadium -- the Yankees canceled their scheduled workout -- Clemens was testy and grim, unwilling to reflect because his work isn't finished, because reflection is something for old people.

Clemens hasn't pitched since Sept. 16, scratched for the final week of the season to recover from a hamstring injury. This season, Clemens went 6-6 with a 4.18 ERA in 18 games. He is being asked, at 45, to be an ace again, to rediscover the brilliance of the 2001 World Series, when he beat Arizona in Game 3 to keep the Yankees from falling into a 3-0 hole and fought Schilling to a standstill in Game 7.

"If you've been paying attention, I'm locked in," Clemens said. "Like I said, I've got a lot of will and desire, doesn't matter my age. And I've had that again, if you guys have been following me for not only the time I've been here but my entire career. That's what I draw on. I draw on a lot of energy."

Clemens is at the center of the roiling storm in New York, for a Yankees loss would trigger a mud slide of consequences. Rodriguez can opt out of his contract and become a free agent. Bobby Abreu has an option on his contract. Pettitte, great for 6 1/3 tense innings in a bizarre Game 2 loss, can opt out of his contract at season's end like Rodriguez. Dynasty stalwarts Rivera and Posada are also eligible for free agency.

Torre, resisted the impulse to reflect on his Yankees tenure, as well. In addition to player uncertainty, Torre's contract is also up. The Yankees have been in the World Series twice since 2000, but they haven't won it since then.

The only thing you have to concentrate on is winning [Sunday]. I mean, we need to win one game just to get the momentum switched around a little bit.

--Yankees manager Joe Torre

"The only thing you have to concentrate on is winning [Sunday]," Torre said. "I mean, we need to win one game just to get the momentum switched around a little bit, and Roger, of course, is certainly capable. He feels good, and we feel good about him."

The great dynasty is nearing its end, pushed by time and a younger generation of players, but Torre is drawing on the belief in another moment, similar to 2001, when the Yankees lost the first two games at home in the division series in Oakland yet won three straight and the series, or when New York lost the first two games of the World Series only to win three straight and take a 3-2 lead later that year. This Sunday could be Torre's final game as manager of the Yankees, but it's not a conversation in which he's particularly willing to engage.

"This game, you know, I've been in it all my life," Torre said of a 50-year baseball career. "The fact of the matter is that you just bury yourself in it. When you look up when it's all over with, you see where you are and what you've accomplished and what you didn't accomplish, and what you're sorry about and what you're happy with, and then you evaluate. But now, we have a lot of work to do."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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