Astros 9, Braves 3
-- He was fidgety. He was uncomfortable. He was off his game. Mostly, what Roger Clemens was, for much of his start Wednesday in Game 1 of a National League Division Series, was ordinary. But then the Houston Astros would need him to make a big pitch, and he would reach back and let loose a 91-mph splitter that disappeared into the ether below some unsuspecting hitter's bat. And pretty soon, it was the seventh inning, and Clemens was still out there, still mowing them down.
The Atlanta Braves had a fighting chance against Clemens's worst pitches, of which there were many, and they worked him for six walks and six hits. But they were no match for Clemens's best, and as a result the Astros romped to a 9-3 win in the opener of this playoff series in front of 41,464 at Turner Field.
"I'm tired," said Clemens, who labored through 117 pitches, almost all of them high-pressure, men-on-base efforts. "That was difficult. . . . Sometimes it takes more than talent or a 95-mile-per-hour fastball; you have to will it."
The Astros, baseball's darlings of September and the hottest team on the planet, won for the eighth straight time, dating from the final week of the regular season, while the Braves, who do their best to trumpet their 13 straight division titles, are now two losses from making it 12 out of 13 Octobers without a World Series championship.
The Braves' task is brutally difficult: They send veteran lefty Mike Hampton to the mound in Thursday's Game 2 to face Houston's 20-game winner, Roy Oswalt, before the series moves to Houston's Minute Maid Park for Games 3 and 4, where the Astros have won 18 straight.
Time was, the Braves always had a Greg Maddux or a Tom Glavine or a John Smoltz to send to the mound against the Clemenses of the world in Game 1's. No more. This year, it was left to right-hander Jaret Wright, who won 15 games in the regular season, but who was taken apart by the relentless Astros.
Brad Ausmus, Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran all homered off Wright during his 41/3-inning stint, which left him bruised, literally -- because of a line drive he took off his left shin in the fourth inning -- and figuratively.
"I was looking to pitch better than I did," Wright said. "It's a bad feeling."
By the fifth inning, when they dispatched Wright, the Astros had built a 7-1 lead. Jeff Bagwell and Jeff Kent had contributed RBI doubles.
This has been true for two decades now: Roger Clemens with a six-run lead is a pretty safe bet. But it was not going to be easy as he usually makes it look.
Just three days earlier, Clemens, battling the flu, had been scratched from his scheduled start in the Astros' season finale, a game the team needed to win (and did). On Wednesday morning, he woke up feeling fine. But he never looked comfortable.
He fidgeted, tugging at his cap, tugging at his shirt, tugging at his belt. He seethed at some of umpire Tim McClelland's ball-strike calls. He had problems with a growing hole in the dirt at the base of the mound, near where his left foot planted during his delivery.
"The way I felt in the first inning," Clemens said, poking fun at his own un-retirement 10 months earlier, "I thought I might have to [retire] right on the spot."
Every inning was a struggle, as Clemens -- who had Andy Pettitte's name stitched into his glove, to honor the injured teammate who had talked him into coming out of retirement to join him in Houston -- seemed to be constantly pitching out of the stretch position, with runners on base. The Braves had 10 base runners in the first four innings alone, but scored only one of them.
"If you were ever going to get him, it would've been today," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said. "But when we had runners on, like the pro that he is, he knew how to get out of jams."
Occasionally, Clemens reminded you of why he owns six Cy Young Awards, such as when he struck out Rafael Furcal on a 91-mph splitter for the critical second out of the second inning, with a pair of runners in scoring position.
An inning later, after Clemens loaded the bases with two outs with his third walk of the inning, the Braves had the misfortune of having rookie left fielder Charles Thomas at the plate.
Even without his best stuff, Clemens could have carved him up any way he saw fit, and this is how he chose to do it: with three straight change-ups off the outside corner, two of which Thomas swung at and missed badly. Then, with a 1-2 count, he froze Thomas with a 91-mph sinker at the knees, ending the inning.
"He definitely tightened it up with runners in scoring position," said Braves second baseman Marcus Giles. "He got nastier."
It was a masterful show of pitching, but Clemens was not impressed. Stalking off the field, he removed his glove as he approached the Astros' dugout and flung it to the bench in anger. Soon, Astros Manager Phil Garner began to calculate bullpen moves based on a five-inning effort from Clemens.
"By the time we got to the fifth," Garner said, "I thought we were going to have to take him out. . . . But it looked to me like he got a little stronger in the sixth. And I thought he was real strong in the seventh."
Indeed, Clemens retired his last six batters. The Braves' big chance was over. Things were back to normal: Clemens in command, the Braves in mortal trouble.