Healthy Clemens set to duel with Smoltz
Veterans face off in rematch of Game 4 of 1999 World Series
ATLANTA -- The last time Roger Clemens and John Smoltz squared off in the postseason, it was Game 4 of the 1999 World Series, and Clemens' Yankees beat Smoltz's Braves to finish off a four-game sweep.
Looking back on it now, Clemens knows that he won his first championship ring that year. The rest of the details are a bit foggy.
"I'm 43," he quipped at Turner Field on Wednesday. "I can use that as an excuse now, right?"
Perhaps his memory has eroded over time, but his pitching sure hasn't. Coming off another fabulous regular season, Clemens and the Astros will face Smoltz and the Braves in Game 2 of their National League Division Series on Thursday night.
It's a matchup of future Hall of Famers with health concerns. Smoltz has been bothered by minor elbow soreness, Clemens by a balky left hamstring.
"I think we both pitch with our hearts and guts and go after guys, and obviously, he's got some hardware to prove it," Smoltz said.
As in Clemens' unprecedented seven Cy Young Awards, plus consideration for an eighth this season. He is baseball's winningest pitcher since 2001 despite briefly retiring after the 2003 season, has made at least 20 starts in 20 consecutive seasons and leads active pitchers in wins, starts, strikeouts, complete games, shutouts and innings pitched.
Clemens went 13-8 this season with a Major League-best 1.87 ERA. He answered questions about his health by pitching seven innings in the next-to-last game of the regular season, recording his 4,500th career strikeout and 341st win while guaranteeing the Astros at least a tie for the Wild Card.
"I feel great," said Clemens, who had skipped his previous start because of the hamstring. "I got stronger. I had what you call 'good soreness' in the right areas and my shoulder didn't pay the price. ...
"I've always felt that if I have a little problem with my elbow or shoulder, I can deal with it. If my legs give out, I'm in trouble because I rely on them quite a bit."
"Good soreness" is what you'd expect to feel when you're over 40 years old and you throw a baseball 90 mph 100 times. "Bad soreness" is when your hamstring is so sore that you can't bend over to tie your shoes.
"I had that for about three weeks," Clemens said. "Now I can do that."
He does a lot more. At the end of Tuesday's workout, Clemens participated in pitcher's fielding practice, a staple of Spring Training that few future Hall of Famers make part of their everyday routine. On Wednesday, his media session was pushed back because Clemens wanted to take some extra batting practice.
Now all he needs is some help from the offense.
Clemens won four straight starts from July 22 to Aug. 7, then won just two of his final nine starts as the Astros averaged 1.4 runs per game and were shut out in four of the nine. For the season, Clemens' 3.58 runs of support per start ranked sixth worst of the 93 Major League qualifiers.
On a lot of days, Clemens would have killed for 3.58 runs.
All-time postseason wins leaders
"I've used the word 'stupid' because it's just hard to fathom that you can go eight times and not score a run in modern-day baseball," Astros manager Phil Garner said.
It's actually worse than that. The Astros offense was totally shut out in nine of Clemens' 32 starts, including five 1-0 losses. One of those came in a string of three straight 1-0, extra-inning Astros losses, including an April 18 game against the Braves at Minute Maid Park.
"I wish I knew a reason or an answer or a possible explanation for why that happened," Garner said. "We have a little history in this organization. I played the Astros when we had Nolan Ryan, and one year we couldn't score runs for Nolan Ryan. I could never figure it out from that side, and I can't figure it out from this side, either.
"I'm hoping all that's passed -- that we're into October and that's all going to change in October," Garner said.
One thing already has changed. Unlike last season, the Astros had a healthy Andy Pettitte to throw at the Braves in Game 1 of the series on Wednesday. That left Clemens available to pitch Game 2 on regular rest.
"There was a great deal of pressure for Andy and I to come home and pitch," said Clemens, who followed his former Yankees teammate to Houston for the 2004 season. "You know the guys who are from our area in Houston and came home to pitch and did not do well. Obviously, that's my home, and I plan to be there a while when I do put the ball down.
"There's pressure there each start. You want to do well for your teammates and there's no difference when I take the mound tomorrow."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.