He was competing against himself over those final three innings. Roger Clemens, 34, stood on the mound in near-empty Tiger Stadium and worked his way past Tom Seaver, David Cone, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton.
Finally, there was no one to match but himself. And on his 151st and final pitch of the night, Clemens fanned Travis Fryman for strikeout No. 20. The Rocket had tied himself for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game.
Incredible. In 126 years of professional baseball, there have been only two 20-strikeout performances over nine innings. Both belong to Clemens.
This is a man who names his children after strikeouts. His sons, Koby, Kory, Kacy and Kody, can stand tall in the playground this morning. Truly, these are days of Special K.
In 1986, Roger Clemens was a fuzzy-cheeked, 23-year-old flame-thrower, dusting the hapless Seattle Mariners on a late April night at Fenway Park. That was before Koby, Kory, Kacy or Kody was born. Last night Clemens was a grizzled veteran of too many standaround spring trainings and too many long, hot summers.
But for one game, in a hardball town he always loved because it's near his grandmother's home, Clemens was able to reach back and light the old flame. It was not unlike Babe Ruth hitting the final three homers of his career in a single game with the Boston Braves just before he hung up his spikes.
``I knew I had a lot [of strikeouts] again,'' Clemens told NESN. ``But I didn't know I was approaching 20. I feel very fortunate and very blessed. I've been doing this for 13 years.''
Ten years ago, we said that the most incredible thing about Clemens' 20-strikeout game was that he did not walk a batter. We said there might be another 20-strikeout game someday, but that the pitcher would certainly walk someone. We were wrong. We didn't figure that the next 20K pitcher would be the same guy.
Clemens last night fanned 20 with zero walks. According to the new math, that's 40 strikeouts with no walks over 18 innings spanning 10 years. Can we therefore expect Clemens to do this against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2006 when he is 44? And will he walk anyone next time?
Time and fame have given Clemens a sense of history that is rare among today's players. Clemens knew he was pitching on the same field where Ty Cobb played. Earlier in this decade, Clemens pitched to Cobb (played by Tommy Lee Jones) on the silver screen. The Rocket scooped dirt from the Tiger Stadium mound when last night's game was over.
Clemens already walks with the gods. Last night he moved into a first-place tie with Cy Young for most Red Sox victories (192) and shutouts (38). But Cy Young never struck out 20 without walking a batter. And Cy Young never won three Cy Young Awards.
Clemens has played his entire career with the Red Sox and is in the final year of his contract. He was unusually emotional after last night's victory. Tears filled his eyes when he was interviewed on NESN.
``If you work hard enough, good things will happen to you,'' he said. ``I know I'm winding down. The wins haven't fallen my way this year.''
No. His record is a measly 10-12. He hasn't won 20 games since 1990, and there are those who claim he has lost his fastball. Tell that to Travis Fryman (4 Ks) and Tony Clark (3 Ks).
``He was truly unhittable tonight,'' Clemens' catcher, Bill Haselman, told NESN.
There was some interesting symmetry at work in Tigertown. A Mo Vaughn error in the eighth enabled Clemens to get an extra strikeout. Those of us with long memories recalled the 1986 game when first baseman/leader Don Baylor dropped a Gorman Thomas foul pop, enabling Clemens to get an additional K.
The revitalized Rocket is scheduled to start against the Yankees Sunday on three days' rest in New York, then wrap up his season at Fenway against the Bombers the following Friday night.
He's been part of the Boston baseball scene since 1984, the year after Yaz retired, but the possibility exists that these could be Clemens' final days in a Red Sox uniform. He's been to four playoffs and two World Series. He's been the best pitcher in franchise history. And if this is the end of his Boston career, the record will show that he went out with one of the most sensational pitching performances in baseball history.
Thirty-six years ago this month, Ted Williams homered on his final trip to the plate. Clemens last night topped Ted's feat, and like Ted, he did it on a weekday in September when hardly anyone was watching. That's how it goes with the baseball gods. You should never take your eye off them. You might miss the next miracle.
This story ran on page d1 of the Boston Globe on 09/19/96.