Astros 10, Marlins 2

It was a big mountain of a man who rose to his feet Wednesday night in an interview room in the bowels of Minute Maid Park and dabbed at his moist eyes with a dark green towel. With a huge leg, he pushed back his chair. With giant arms, he drew his sons to his massive chest in a long, deep, tearful hug. The Clemens family was in mourning for the woman they called "Mama" or "Grandma," and the big mountain of a man stood in the middle of them all and cried.

"She was my strength," Roger Clemens said late Wednesday night. "She was always my will."

Clemens had just spent much of the previous three hours hiding his emotions, performing his job as staff ace of the Houston Astros with typical effectiveness. He pitched the Astros to a 10-2 win over the Florida Marlins in a critical September game that kept alive the team's hopes for a playoff spot with 21/2 weeks left in the season.

He did it so well, of the 30,911 fans who rose to their feet when he came out of the game in the seventh inning, undoubtedly there were many who had no idea Clemens had just that morning said goodbye forever to his mother. They thought they were just cheering another brilliant pitching performance, when what they really saw was Clemens creating an indelible moment on what was undoubtedly the most harrowing night of his career.

Bess Clemens-Booher, admired as much for her own toughness as for producing the greatest pitcher of his generation, died of complications from emphysema at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday in Georgetown, Tex. -- about a half-hour outside of Austin -- where she lived. She was 75. Roger Clemens had spent much of the previous three days at her bedside.

"The last two or three days were pretty grueling," he said. "She was very tough to the end. She didn't want to give up."

That Clemens, 43, was even out there on the mound at all was, in part, to honor Bess's wishes. "She told me," he said, "to go to work." The Astros would have understood if he had bailed out, given the circumstances, but they were grateful he did not. The win pulled the Astros, who had lost four of their previous five games, away from the edge of a dangerous abyss. They are now a half-game off the National League wild-card lead, which is shared by Florida and Philadelphia.

After the game, an emotional Clemens described his last hours at his mother's bedside with a mixture of humor and poignancy. Bess asked about the condition of Andy Pettitte's elbow, Clemens said, and wondered if the playoffs had started yet. She twice mentioned Shoeless Joe Jackson, leading Clemens to ask her if she was "in the field" from the movie, "Field Of Dreams."

"I think I am," she answered.

"She loves the game," he explained Wednesday night.

Bess Clemens raised Roger and his five siblings by herself from the time Roger was 7, following the death of her second husband -- Roger's stepfather. Clemens, an unabashed mama's boy, has spoken of her working three jobs to support the family.

"She was really my mother and my father," he said. "She played both roles."

After spending much of Wednesday with his tightly knit family, Clemens flew by private jet from Georgetown to Houston and arrived at the ballpark sometime between 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. He stayed out of sight of the media before the game, but, he would say later, was visited by a steady stream of teammates offering their condolences.

"To do what he's about to do tonight," said Astros General Manager Tim Purpura before the game, "is heroic."

Clemens, wearing a day's worth of stubble on his face, looked like his usual, outsized, intimidating self as he stood on the mound, took a deep breath and delivered his first pitch, a 91-mph fastball for a ball. But he walked the leadoff hitter, Luis Castillo, and allowed a run to score two batters later on Miguel Cabrera's RBI groundout.

"I was lost," he said, "as soon as I got on the mound."

But Clemens recovered, limiting the Marlins to just five hits over his 61/3 innings, striking out four. Asked if the win was for his mother, he said, "They're all for her."

Losing himself in the game, Clemens was even animated at times. After completing a 1-2-3 fourth inning, he bounded off the mound and slammed his open hand into his glove three times. Later, he pumped his fist after the Astros' infielders thwarted a sacrifice bunt attempt, and raised his right fist in triumph when his right fielder, Jason Lane, made a sprinting, diving catch.

There was no public acknowledgment made of Bess Clemens's passing until just after the game, when a video tribute to her was played on the giant video screen in the outfield. Astros players who had gathered on the field to celebrate the win stopped in their tracks to watch.

And in a room beneath the stadium, Clemens, too, watched on a television monitor. He had seen the old clips before, but he watched intently and smiled.

"It was nice to see her look so pretty," the big mountain of a man said, "the way I remember her."

"She was my strength," Roger Clemens said of his mother, Bess Clemens-Booher, who died early yesterday of emphysema at age 75.