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Roger CLEMENS - The King Of K's
Leigh Montville
July 03, 2006
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July 03, 2006

Roger Clemens - The King Of K's


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The night of Tuesday, April 29, 1986, did not arrive with great anticipation at Fenway Park. The Boston weather was cool, and local interest was focused elsewhere. Twenty-three-year-old righthander Roger Clemens took the mound before a bundled-up crowd of 13,414 customers sprinkled around the ballpark. There was no reason to think that anything special would happen.

"Look at that," one Red Sox official, pointing at the photographers' well on the first base side, remarked in the press box as the game began. "There's only one photographer down there." The lone man with the camera was Jerry Buckley, the team's photographer.

Earlier that afternoon the New England Patriots, losers to the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX in January, had selected SMU running back Reggie Dupard with their first pick in the NFL draft. That same night Larry Bird's Boston Celtics, in the early stages of a march to the NBA title, were facing the Atlanta Hawks at Boston Garden in Game 2 of their second-round playoff series. The Red Sox were such an afterthought that their broadcast was moved to WPLM on the FM dial from its normal spot on WRKO-AM to make way for the Celtics. What did it matter? The light-hitting Seattle Mariners were the opposition and this was the 18th game of a 162-game season.

Clemens himself was something of a question mark, coming off right-shoulder surgery after going 16--9 with a 3.88 ERA over his first two major league seasons. But the young flamethrower struck out the first three batters he faced, all swinging, and then fanned two of three in the second inning. In his fourth start since his surgery, Clemens was establishing early that on this night he would be virtually unhittable.

The Red Sox did not own a radar gun, but a scout for the Toronto Blue Jays reported that he clocked one Clemens strike at 97 mph. Almost every pitch was a fastball, and each seemed faster than the last. Catcher Rich Gedman simply put his glove in the proper location and held it there until the pitch arrived. As the night went on, an odd sort of drama evolved, one in which strikeouts mattered more than anything else. Each batter represented a new challenge. A simple out was no longer good enough; K's were the necessary result.

The Mariners, on course to set the American League record for team strikeouts in a season, appeared helpless. After shortstop Spike Owen singled to right to open the fourth inning, Clemens struck out eight straight batters to tie a league mark. News of what he was doing--14 K's in six innings--began to spread around town. The major league record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game was 19, held by four pitchers in the 111-year history of the sport. The math was easy: Clemens clearly had a shot at 20.

Some college kids from nearby Newton, who two years earlier had started the practice of hanging a 2x3 cardboard sign with a painted red k from the bleachers to mark each Clemens strikeout, rushed to the ballpark. By the sixth inning k's were strung all along the rightfield wall. The Celtics posted running counts of Clemens's strikeout total on the message boards at each end of the Garden. The only people who seemed unaware of the potential for history to be made were the participants.

Gedman, now the manager of the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent Canadian-American League, wondered why the fans were cheering so loudly after each out. Home plate umpire Vic Voltaggio, who retired in 1996 and now works as an umpiring instructor, was similarly perplexed, though he knew something memorable was happening. He told a batboy after the seventh inning, "This is the best pitching performance I've ever seen." Clemens, who went to the clubhouse between innings as he usually did, heard something on TV about the eight strikeouts in a row tying a record, but didn't give any other record a thought until he prepared to go to the mound for the ninth.

Fellow Red Sox starter Al Nipper, who would become the team's bullpen coach in 2006, told Clemens the news: He had 18 strikeouts and needed one to tie the record, two to break it. "I had to do it," Nipper told The Boston Globe afterward. "Wouldn't it be a shame if a guy had a chance for something like that and didn't try for it? I wanted him to know. He's not the type of guy who would be affected by knowing."

Owen, who was a college teammate of Clemens at Texas, whiffed for number 19. Phil Bradley was called out looking for the record 20th. Third baseman Wade Boggs ran to the mound to shake Clemens's hand. The Newton kids had run out of room in rightfield, so they put their 20th sign atop the row of 19. One out remained.

"We should get the ball to save it," trainer Charlie Moss suggested in the dugout.

"You don't have to," said lefthander Bruce Hurst, charting the game (he's now the pitching coach for the Chinese national team). "That ball ain't going anywhere." True enough. Ken Phelps grounded out to short to end it.

Clemens would match the feat 10 years later against the Detroit Tigers. Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs (1998) and Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks (2001) are the only others to strike out 20 in a game.

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