By Evan Ren
Killeen Daily Herald
ROUND ROCK – With T-minus one tune-up game remaining before a scheduled blast off to the Major Leagues, Houston's rocket nearly stalled on the launching pad Friday at Dell Diamond.
Making his third-and-final appearance on a barnstorming tour through the Houston minor league system, seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens overcame a rough start to deliver 5 2/3 innings of work.
For those who are interested, the Express (39-28) won the game, 7-4. But much of the record throng of 13,475 fans were focused solely on the Rocket, and many vacated the premises when he left with a 6-3 lead in the sixth inning.
The crowd eclipsed the club's old mark of 13,414, set June 18, 2004 when Houston's Andy Pettitte made a rehab start for the Express.
"I'm on target for the 22nd," said Clemens, who threw 91 pitches, 57 of which were strikes. "That's the environment I'm used to and I'm getting stronger each time I go out.
"I made it a lot tougher than I would have liked during the first inning, but I'm going to run into those types of situations during the season as I come back."
As expected, Clemens had been dominant in two earlier tune-up starts, striking out six in three shutout innings against Class-A Lake County before a record crowd of 9,222 in Lexington, Ky., on June 6. After that, he tied a franchise record by striking out 11 San Antonio Missions before a record 9,022 fans at Double-A Corpus Christi on June 11.
But against the Triple-A Zephyrs (37-31), Clemens struggled at the outset, mainly with his control. Three first-inning walks, coupled with singles by Bernie Castro and Larry Broadway gave New Orleans a 3-0 lead.
"I was in a new stadium with a new catcher and it took me a while to get focused," said Clemens, who peaked at 92 mph. "During my first 10 pitches I was hearing people in the dugout and wasn't in tune with what I was doing.
"But the bottom line was I was still trying to throw strikes and my ball was moving all over the place."
A little run support didn't hurt.
Round Rock pushed home two runs in the bottom of the first to cut the gap to 3-2, after which Clemens seemed to find a groove. The 43-year-old right-hander sat New Orleans down in order in the second, capping it with a strikeout of Ryan Church. He was perfect again in the third, fanning Broadway to open the frame, after which Brandon Larson popped out behind the plate and Tyrell Godwin grounded out to the pitcher's mound.
In its half of the inning, the Express tied the game at 3 when Mike Rodriguez singled and scored on a groundball by Brooks Conrad.
"These guys in Triple-A ball are a pretty good challenge," Clemens said. "Some of these guys in the (Round Rock) clubhouse might be teammates of mine in the near future.
"They're in Triple-A for a reason."
Clemens continued to coast in the fourth, retiring Mike Vento on a ground out and fanning Alberto Castillo before a single by starting pitcher Anastacio Martinez broke a string of 10 straight outs.
Retiring Castro to end the frame, Clemens had cut his pitch counts from 41 in the first inning, to eight in the second, nine in the third, and 10 in the fourth. Shortly thereafter, Royce Huffman hit his sixth home run of the year to give the Express a 4-3 edge in the bottom of the fourth.
A perfect fifth by Clemens, capped by a strikeout of Broadway preceded a two-run Express frame which saw Luke Scott connect with a two-run homer for a 6-3 Round Rock lead. At that point, with his pitch count at 80, Clemens elected to throw a sixth inning.
In an 11-pitch span, Larson led off with a single up the middle, followed by consecutive deep flyouts by Godwin and Vento. With Clemens' pitch count standing at 91, Express manager Jackie Moore then approached the mound.
"Jackie came out and asked me how I felt," Clemens said. "I said I need to get one more out to get out of this thing, what do you think?
"He said 'I'd like to get you out of here and let you walk off this mound right now,' and that was the end of the conversation."
Clemens then strode to the dugout, amidst a thundering standing ovation. In total, he allowed five hits and three runs, all earned, with three walks and five strikeouts.
"It's a real plus for the community to have Roger here because it's brought excitement to Round Rock and to Central Texas," said club owner Nolan Ryan. "We could have doubled (the tickets) that we normally sell here -- that many people wanted to come – unfortunately, we've got limited seating."
Clemens, along with Ryan, Houston second baseman Craig Biggio, Houston pitcher Andy Pettitt, Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent and former Major-Leaguer Brooks Kieschnick are part of a group that owns both the Corpus Christi Hooks and the Round Rock Express.
For Clemens, who signed a $22,000,022 contract with the Astros on June 1, it was his first appearance in an Express uniform, but one Express players won't soon forget.
"He has an understanding and an appreciation for where he is in his career," Ryan said. "He sees that he can have a positive influence on these players, and I know from talking to some of the Corpus Christi players that it was very meaningful to them.
"He carries a lot of weight and a lot of respect, and I think it's well-received."
n Express Notes – Express hitting coach Harry Spillman was ejected in the first inning for arguing balls and strikes with home plate umpire A.J. Wendel. The two clubs will square off again in Game 2 of a four-game set tonight at 7:05 at Dell Diamond.
Contact Evan Ren at email@example.com