A month ago, Dontrelle Willis, the Florida Marlins' left-hander, pitched a masterful game against the San Francisco Giants, allowing just five hits and one run before being removed for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning. The pinch hitter struck out, the Marlins lost 1-0, and afterward Willis was despondent, telling reporters ominously that it is "games like these" that will be remembered if the Marlins fail to make the playoffs.
Now, imagine pitching that same game over and over this season, losing 1-0 more times than would seem to be humanly possible, and you will have some idea what it has been like to be Roger Clemens with the Houston Astros in 2005 -- a season in which he has lost 1-0 games five times.
"I can only imagine," Willis said Tuesday afternoon in the visitors' clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, shaking his head sympathetically. "It happened to me once, and I went over the edge."
While the Marlins and Astros battle each other over the season's final three weeks for the National League wild card -- the Marlins' 4-2 win over the Astros on Tuesday night gave them a one-game lead over Philadelphia, with the Astros now 11/2 games back -- Willis and Clemens are simultaneously waging a fascinating struggle, along with Chris Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals, for supremacy in the race for the league's Cy Young Award.
Clemens is scheduled to face the Marlins here Wednesday night, although he has spent much of the last few days in the hospital with his mother, Bess, and the Astros are prepared for the possibility he will not make his scheduled start.
More than perhaps any other such race in history, this one has become a referendum on the relative importance of individual wins to a pitcher's body of work in a given season. Carpenter and Willis have 21 wins apiece; Clemens has 11 -- a difference that is so huge, in most seasons it would not even be worth debating.
However, by almost every other significant measure -- including ERA, opponents' batting average and base runners allowed per nine innings -- Clemens has been the superior pitcher. It is also is worth pointing out that he is 43 years old and already owns a record seven Cy Young Awards, which, someone might argue, ought to count for something.
"He's beyond anything you've ever seen," Astros Manager Phil Garner said. "This guy is just different."
Clemens's problem? Well, it really is not his problem at all. It is his teammates' problem. Specifically, the Astros, for whatever reason, cannot seem to score runs when he is on the mound. They have been shut out eight times when he has pitched -- Clemens's combined ERA in those games is 0.78 -- and two other times they broke up an opponent's shutout only after Clemens had left the game.
"Is that stupid, or what?" Garner said. "It defies any common sense or logic. One guy just doesn't get shut out eight times."
"It's unbelievable," Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg said. "In fact, it's embarrassing, is what it is."
In past seasons, voters have awarded the Cy Young to pitchers with fewer wins than their competitors. But perhaps never before has someone -- and a living legend, at that -- pitched so well and amassed so few wins as Clemens in 2005. In many respects, he is having an historic season, with an ERA (1.78) that is the lowest in the majors in a decade and the lowest by a pitcher in his forties in 88 years.
"He's pitched brilliant ball," Garner said. "Legitimately, he should have won every game but three this year."
So, how important should wins and losses be in evaluating Cy Young candidates? Baseball players routinely dismiss the stat as insignificant, but voters rarely do.
"As a pitcher, you don't have control over wins and losses," Willis said.
"Last time I checked," Ensberg said, "it's impossible to win if your team doesn't score."
However, the debate is not quite as simple as a matter of poor run support. There is one other major area in which Clemens's record is lacking: While Carpenter (21-4, 2.31 ERA) and Willis (21-8, 2.49) are tied for the league lead with seven complete games, and both rank in the league's top five in innings pitched, Clemens (11-7) has become essentially a seven-inning pitcher, pitching into the eighth inning only four times all year and never pitching into the ninth. Partly as a result, he has 11 no-decisions among his 29 starts.
"Win or lose, I've been fortunate to be able to pitch deep enough into games to get decisions," said Willis, who has one no-decision in 30 starts. "If you have control over anything, it's how deep you go into games."
No starting pitcher has ever won a Cy Young with fewer than 17 wins. The closest parallel to this debate came in 1996, when Florida's Kevin Brown posted an ERA (1.89) that was more than a run better than that of Atlanta's John Smoltz (2.94) -- but Smoltz won because he had seven more wins, 24 to 17.
It appears that history is prepared to doom Clemens to a second- or even third-place finish in the voting -- in which case, statistically, the award belongs to Carpenter, who leads Willis by healthy margins in ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched and opponents' batting average. Even Willis concedes this fight.
"My vote goes to Carpenter," Willis said. "He's pretty much got it in the bag. He ain't been hit in a year and a half. Hey, my momma taught me to give credit where credit's due."