Clemens earns win in return to Yanks
Pirates held to three runs in six-inning start; win streak hits five
NEW YORK -- For weeks, the Yankees have insisted that they weren't waiting for Roger Clemens to prop the team on his 44-year-old shoulders, like some pinstriped savior riding in from the outposts of Tampa, Trenton or Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
All the Yankees desired, as Clemens journeyed to the big leagues and clicked the meter on a lucrative contract, was for him to slot as a productive member of their rotation, promising them a stable effort every fifth day.
Mission accomplished. Clemens' Bronx relaunch was a success, as The Rocket notched a win in his first start of the season, pitching six innings in the Yankees' 9-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday.
"It felt like old times," Clemens said. "I've got to take a little deep breath now. I understand the excitement that's there and the expectations that are there. There's a lot of both."
Clemens threw 108 pitches in the start, limiting the Pirates to three runs and five hits in helping the Yankees extend their winning streak to a season-high five games. New York is now two games under .500 at 29-31 and had been showing signs of renewal even before Clemens jazzed things up. The Rocket also achieved a milestone of sorts, earning career strikeout No. 4,606 to pass Randy Johnson for second on the all-time list with his second punchout in the top of the first inning.
"We get caught up in Roger the guy and the competitor," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "That's what I think the guys are excited about today, the fact that he's back here. When he's on your side, you just feel like you have an advantage, and that's what we have."
The right-hander may have even given the Yankees a little more than expected in a two-walk, seven-strikeout performance. Torre had spoken repeatedly about how he'd be satisfied with five or six good innings from Clemens.
Though there was some thought to ending Clemens' afternoon after he finished the fifth frame, Clemens insisted that he was physically fine for one more.
Undecided between pulling Clemens and turning to the bullpen, Torre stayed with Clemens, who answered the call by retiring the final seven batters he faced.
On Clemens' final pitch, a swinging strikeout of Pittsburgh's Ryan Doumit, Clemens was received with a standing ovation from the crowd of 54,296, while Elton John's "Rocket Man" walked him into the Yankees dugout, where he exchanged fist pounds with his new -- and old -- teammates.
"It's great to be back," Clemens said. "There's great energy here, as expected, and the guys played well. Just a good day all the way through."
"I still felt that we probably weren't going to see him at the top of his game in his first outing, in his first couple outings," Torre said. "As long as he came out of it physically fine, you just sort of shrug your shoulders and he'll be better next time. That was the feeling I went in with, anyway."
The Pirates seemed intent on testing Clemens from the very beginning.
Clemens' first pitch to third baseman Jose Bautista was an attempted bunt, tapped foul. Clemens showed a little nimbleness later, fielding his position on Chris Duffy's second-inning infield tapper and throwing the runner out at first, pumping his fist as the play completed.
After missing a scheduled start on Monday at Chicago because of disrupted scar tissue in his right groin, Clemens said that there were no lingering aftereffects as he handled the Pirates, a club he saw last year as a member of the National League Central's Houston Astros.
"I felt fine," Clemens said. "I was being as honest as I can with them. I think everybody here knows that the worst-case scenario is that I go backward with my legs again. You test it, but you don't test it under these circumstances. I can only trust the work that I've been doing."
Working harmoniously with his familiar target, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, the right-hander allowed a leadoff double in the second and a walk to start the third but escaped damage.
"I can't say enough about the job that [Posada] did," Clemens said. "The cadence I had, the few visits that we had where I felt the pitches that I needed to throw were most comfortable to get a strikeout or an out. I just tip my hat to him."
"He really didn't shake me off much," Posada said. "He trusted what I wanted to do, and we went after them. He seemed like he wanted to do what I wanted to do, so that was pretty cool to see."
Laboring somewhat over his effort, Clemens struck out Adam LaRoche looking to open the fourth inning but allowed a hit to Xavier Nady and a walk to catcher Ronny Paulino before Duffy clipped a two-run double over Bobby Abreu's head in right field to tie the game.
After the game, it wasn't the double that Clemens was lamenting, saying that he doesn't mind giving up hits; Clemens preferred to instead kick himself for the walk to Paulino, wishing that he'd challenged the backstop to make contact.
"I expect to get stronger each time from here out," Clemens said.
"I'm going to savor this moment. You know what's ahead of us, and it's a lot of work."
The Yankees jumped on Pittsburgh starter Paul Maholm to build a three-run cushion in the bottom half of the first, with Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano driving in runs. Another run scored on a Posada single to left that brought in a run on an error charged to Paulino.
The Yankees put Clemens in line for the win in the fifth, as Posada lined a bases-loaded sacrifice fly to right for a sacrifice fly, scoring Derek Jeter.
With Clemens out, the Yankees padded their lead with five more unanswered runs. Abreu came through with a run-scoring single and Rodriguez hit a sacrifice fly to open up a three-run advantage in the sixth, and New York added two in the seventh and one more in the eighth on Hideki Matsui's sacrifice fly, one of three hit by New York.
The final innings against the increasingly sloppy Pirates allowed Torre to go back into a certain cruise-control mode, which is exactly where he'd said he was through the first four or five innings with Clemens. It's a luxury that Torre hasn't had often, and he was going to enjoy it.
"You're just going to watch him, because you know you trust him," Torre said. "He knows what he's doing. I was just glad we got the positive result."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.