By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 8, 2007
NEW YORK, Oct. 7 -- The New York Yankees were staring straight into the void Sunday night, the kind that marks not the ends of games or even seasons, but of eras, careers, baseball lives. It was a matter of hours away, a few innings to go, the dark, foreboding feeling creeping across the highest reaches of Yankee Stadium and filtering down -- to the Yankees' dugout, where Manager Joe Torre sat wondering what awful fate would await him the next morning, and to the clubhouse, where Roger Clemens had long since removed his Yankees uniform without knowing if he'd ever don it, or any other, again.
But the season, the Torre era, and perhaps even the greatest pitching career in decades, if not all-time, lives on. On a tumultuous day that brought to bear all the best and worst things about working and playing for the Yankees, they survived Clemens's early exit and staved off elimination in the American League Division Series, beating the Cleveland Indians, 8-4, in Game 3.
Game 4 will be here Monday night, with the Yankees starting ace Chien-Ming Wang, the Game 1 loser, on short rest. The Indians decided against starting ace and Game 1 winner C.C. Sabathia on short rest, and instead will use veteran Paul Byrd.
Sunday dawned with a story in the Bergen (N.J.) Record, in which Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said Torre would be let go if the team lost this series. Things got no better as Clemens, 45, lasted only 2 1/3 innings before departing with a strained hamstring. By the time the Indians finished batting in the third, the Yankees trailed 3-0.
But in the fifth, left fielder Johnny Damon ended 2 1/2 games' worth of offensive angst for the Yankees, launching a three-run homer off Indians starter Jake Westbrook that gave the Yankees a 5-3 lead. The old building exploded beneath the roar of 56,358 fans when the ball cleared the wall, the roar sustaining until Damon consented to a curtain call.
"We're playing for our manager that we love," Damon said of Torre. "We get to play for him at least another day, and hopefully longer."
Clemens, meantime, was followed to the mound by two rookie pitchers whose combined ages don't equal his. Phil Hughes, 21, delivered 3 2/3 scoreless innings of relief -- essentially announcing himself as Clemens's replacement in the rotation, should the Yankees be fortunate enough to get that far. And phenom Joba Chamberlain, 22, carried the lead through the seventh and eighth, eliciting gasps from the crowd when he hit 100 mph on the radar gun.
The Yankees broke the game open with three more runs in the sixth -- all of them on one swing of the bat, Robinson Cano's bases-loaded single to right, but two of those the result of a glaring misplay by Indians right fielder Trot Nixon, who overran the ball, allowing it to roll nearly to the wall.
Clemens had pitched just once since the first week of September, having suffered from both hamstring soreness and a twinge in his elbow. But the Yankees were paying him more than $17 million this season, and perhaps he felt he owed it to them to crank up the ol' bones and take the ball one last time.
"I had every intention of getting out there for six or seven innings," he said.
Clemens first felt the bite of his hamstring when he lunged at a slow roller past the mound in the second inning, just after allowing a homer to Trot Nixon that pushed the Indians' lead to 2-0. At one point, he called catcher Jorge Posada to the mound and said, "I've got a problem going on out here."
Clemens got his leg wrapped between innings, but on his 49th pitch of the night, to the first batter of the third inning, he finished off the pitch, a strike, and immediately looked into the Yankees' dugout with a slight grimace on his face. That led to the first of two mound conferences that inning between Clemens, Torre and trainer Gene Monahan. The second of them precipitated Clemens's exit.
His final pitch was one to file away to memory -- a 92 mph strike at the knees, outside corner, with a little bit of bite, a little bit of giddyup to it. Victor Martinez swung through it -- Clemens's only strikeout of the game. As he handed over the ball and made his way to the dugout, a pocket of boos arose from the right field stands, but was quickly drowned out by a cheer that grew as the fans rose to their feet.
"I wouldn't want to say it's heartbreaking, because he wouldn't want me to say that," Torre said of that spectacle. "But . . . he was very unhappy when we took him out. Not that he felt he could pitch more. It's just that he was there to do a job, and he was really upset that he had to leave."
Under a new rule instituted this year, the Yankees can replace Clemens on their roster for the remainder of the series, but by rule he would be required to sit out the next series, too. Torre said that option was being discussed by Yankees officials.
"I don't know what's going to go on," Clemens said. "I'm just going to do everything I can to get my leg well."
With Clemens pitching in an elimination game, there is always the chance it would be the final start of his career -- although such statements have been made in every autumn since 2003, and every time they were proven false.
But the way Clemens exited this time -- the slight limp, the head bowed, the ovation from the fans unacknowledged, the gingerly way he gripped the handrail as he descended the dugout steps and disappeared into the tunnel to the clubhouse -- felt different, like a slow fade to black, just before the credits roll.
But on this night, the credits never rolled. They all live on -- Clemens's career, Torre's era and the Yankees' season -- just barely alive, but alive.