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Striking Out Toward Cooperstown
Peter Gammons
May 12, 1986
In one of baseball's great pitching feats, Boston's Roger Clemens fanned 20 Seattle batters to set a major league record
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May 12, 1986

Striking Out Toward Cooperstown

In one of baseball's great pitching feats, Boston's Roger Clemens fanned 20 Seattle batters to set a major league record

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At a few minutes after 10 p.m. on Tuesday of last week, Roger Clemens was sitting in front of his locker in the Boston clubhouse, as he had each time his teammates were at bat. It was the bottom of the eighth, the Red Sox were leading Seattle 3-1, and Clemens already had struck out 18 batters. "Rocket, do you realize that you're one away from tying the strikeout record?" his teammate Al Nipper said. Clemens stared ahead, distracted, his legs cramping from exhaustion.

As Clemens walked out to the Fenway Park mound for the ninth inning, Nipper followed him and told trainer Charlie Moss, "He's not the type to be affected by knowing. Watch."

Which they did, intently, as the 23-year-old righthander began "throwing on adrenaline." He blew a fastball past Mariner shortstop Spike Owen, then a second and a third. The 19th K was posted by a fan on the back bleacher wall as Clemens joined Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver as the only pitchers ever to strike out 19 batters in a nine-inning game. Only Tom Cheney of the old Washington Senators had struck out more, 21, and that was in a 16-inning game.

Now all of the Mariner and Red Sox players were standing on their dugout steps. The crowd of 13,414, sparse because of the Celtics playoff game three miles away, was also on its feet. Mariner leftfielder Phil Bradley walked to the plate like a man approaching his execution. It didn't take long. With one, two and, inevitably, three fastballs, Clemens had set a record, 20 batters struck out in a nine-inning game. Only Ken Phelps was left to ground out, and the 3-1, three-hit part of Clemens's night flight to Coopers-town was complete.

"I watched perfect games by Catfish Hunter and Mike Witt, but this was the most awesome pitching performance I've ever seen," said Boston manager John McNamara. Even Seattle pitching coach Phil Regan, who was Sandy Koufax's Dodger teammate, called it "the best game I've ever seen."

"It's not just the strikeouts that make it great," said Gorman Thomas, whose seventh-inning homer had spoiled Clemens's shutout. "It's the zero next to the 20." Years from now, when someone studies the box score and sees CLEMENS (w, 4-0) 9 3 1 1 0 20, he may think it impossible that a pitcher could strike out 20 batters without giving up a walk. And this while throwing at 97 mph, eight months after a shoulder operation that threatened to end his career.

In 1969, when Carlton struck out 19 for the Cardinals, he lost 4-3 to the Mets. Seaver struck out the last 10 Padres to reach 19 in 1970, but he did not have the designated hitter to contend with. When Clemens's hero, Ryan, did it for the Angels against the Red Sox in 1974, he walked two and had to pitch out of a ninth-inning jam for the 4-2 victory.

Clemens threw 97 strikes and 41 balls, and only 29 of the strikes were even touched—10 put in play and 19 fouled off. He failed to get two strikes on only five batters, but hanging an 0-2 curveball that Owen slapped for a fourth-inning single cost him $10 in Don Baylor's kangaroo court. "Two things make Clemens unusual among power pitchers," said Mariner manager Chuck Cottier. "First, his fastball explodes down in the strike zone and, second, the only others with his control were Koufax—at the end—and Bob Gibson." Added Boston catcher Rich Gedman, "Roger works in and out like a 40-year-old, knocks hitters off the plate and paints like an artist."

"Control has never been a problem because mechanics have never been a problem," Clemens says. There was, however, one real trouble area—his right shoulder. He had come out of the minors in May 1984, less than a year after pitching the University of Texas to the College World Series championship. He won nine games for the Red Sox in 3� months and was being compared with Dwight Gooden when he pulled a muscle in his right forearm and was out for the year. A year ago, with a 4-2 record for May, he was rolling again, but he started to experience weakness in his shoulder. Doctors couldn't find the precise problem, and Clemens continued to pitch, saying, "I can finesse hitters and get by even without the good fastball."

"There was no way he should have been pitching," says Nipper now, "but he's so damned tough he tried to ignore the pain." Finally, on July 7 in Anaheim, Clemens tried to warm up and had to stop. He sat down in the hallway outside the clubhouse, tears in his eyes. "I couldn't stand being one of those could-have-beens," Clemens remembers. "I was really hurting, and I didn't know why. Or why me."

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