Since the New York Yankees never expect to be anywhere else, they may not remember tonight's methodical 3-0 victory over the Texas Rangers for clinching another trip to the American League Championship Series. They may not even remember it for Darryl Strawberry's mammoth three-run home run in the first inning or three slick defensive plays by center fielder Bernie Williams.
For the Yankees, tonight was about Roger Clemens. As if the defending champions needed another reason to feel good about themselves in sweeping the hapless Rangers, 3-0, in a best-of-five series, they got one from Clemens.
In a season when he has been so erratic that he has been booed at Yankee Stadium and dropped in the playoff rotation by Manager Joe Torre, Clemens showed the world why he's perhaps the best pitcher of his generation in surrendering three singles in seven innings to the Rangers.
He had such command of his 95 mph fastball and his unhittable split-finger pitch that the Rangers never came close to scoring against him. Strawberry's three-run home run off Texas starter Esteban Loaiza in the top of the first inning gave Clemens a comfort zone, and he used it brilliantly.
"Roger certainly set the tone tonight," Torre said. "I think it turns the page on everything that happened this year. He approached it as I anticipated he would. There was a lot of question marks during the season. He had a chance to start over tonight. He kept his emotions intact, and his stuff was terrific. This is the pitcher we traded for."
Clemens and the Yankees will have three days off before opening the ALCS at Yankee Stadium against Boston or Cleveland on Wednesday.
As for the Rangers, they got runners as far as second base only twice and didn't get anyone farther than that. What help Clemens did need was provided by Williams in center field and by second baseman Chuck Knoblauch's nice defensive play in the third inning.
One of the reasons Clemens accepted a trade to the Yankees from Toronto last spring was to add what teammate David Cone calls "the missing link" of a brilliant resume. For all he has accomplished--five Cy Young Awards and five 20-win seasons--the one thing Clemens has not done is win in the postseason. Tonight's victory was only his second in 10 postseason starts and his first in 13 years.
"Getting this opportunity to pitch in New York is incredible," Clemens said. "I'm extremely happy for a lot of guys in that clubhouse. I know they've been through it before, but that champagne gets colder as you go. I just feel very blessed for this opportunity."
Clemens added the final punctuation mark to another disappointing offseason for the Rangers, who were swept out of the playoffs by the Yankees for a second straight season. They were first in batting average and second in runs during the regular season, but had nothing left in the playoffs. They scored one run in three games and went 0 for 13 with runners in scoring position.
It's the third time in four years they've lost a first-round matchup against the Yankees, and tonight's defeat was their ninth straight postseason loss to New York. They've scored just two runs in their last 60 postseason innings.
"It's been the same story this whole series and last year, too," Rangers Manager Johnny Oates said. "We never got the offense going. We score well the entire season, and when it comes to these three games, we can't smell home plate."
Rangers second baseman Mark McLemore said: "It's very hard to take. We just weren't the best team."
The Yankees put the Rangers in a quick hole tonight. With one out in the top of the first, Derek Jeter hit a ball off the top of the left-field wall that was scored a triple. Bernie Williams then worked Loaiza for a walk, and after Tino Martinez struck out, Strawberry hit a slider into the seats in left-center for three runs.
"It always feels good when you come through in a big situation," Strawberry said. "When you get three runs and you have Roger Clemens on the mound, you have to feel good about your chances."
The Yankees probably knew what kind of night it was going to be when he needed just eight pitches to sail through the first inning. It's the early innings that have caused him the most trouble. He allowed 52 of his 101 earned runs in the first three innings--20 of them in the first inning alone.
The Yankees believe his trouble can be traced to his approach. Because he's so intense, he has trouble controlling his adrenaline in the early innings. To prepare for this start, he did extra throwing on the side, including one session that lasted 85 pitches--about 40 percent more than normal. Clemens did his usual array of weight-lifting, running and exercises in addition to the throwing. And just before taking the mound, he watched his Texas Longhorns rally to defeat Oklahoma a few miles away at the Cotton Bowl. Clemens departed after seven innings, and closer Mariano Rivera got the final six outs.