Monday, May 5, 2003

No such thing as tough luck when Clemens loses

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

NEW YORK - With Roger Clemens wedged between the immortal Gil Meche and two helpings of Barry Zito, Joe Torre was asked Sunday morning if his ageless wonder was suddenly the victim of circumstance and fate. Tough luck, in other words. A hint of misfortune that the New York Yankee manager met with a full Louisville Slugger cut.

"The other persons have tough luck," Torre said. "Not him. He's Clemens."

He's an amazing physical spectacle, a man among men. At 40, Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice didn't approach middle-of-their-prime standards as closely as Clemens approaches his. The Rocket will secure his 300th victory real soon, retire with his six pack of Cy Young Awards, and head to the Hall of Fame the way another Texas titan, Coach Bill Parcells, loves to put it: on roller skates.

But that won't be the ultimate measure of the Yankees' decision to rehire Clemens for one last go. Much as George Steinbrenner wanted to bathe in the glory of No. 300, in the possibilities of Clemens making history by planting his pinstriped flag in the Fenway mound, the Yankees paid Clemens another $10.1 million to win a few games that won't inflate his regular-season sum.

They paid him to beat the likes of Barry Zito in October.

This is where it gets a little tricky. I know, I know. First I'm warning fans about the perils of a five-game series and the need for Bud Selig to pull a David Stern and give the Yankees the benefit of the Lakers' best-of-seven doubt, and now I'm pumping up the very young guns who couldn't beat the Minnesota Twins in the Division Series, never mind the Yanks.

That's what happens when you cover a 23-8 team that just suffered its first lost series of the season, a 23-8 team being chased by a divisional rival that last won a championship six years after the Titanic sank. You search for icebergs. You hunt for structural flaws.

You watch Zito beat Clemens 2-0 on a Sunday in May and wonder if this spells the doom of an unsinkable ship.

"They both pitched great," Torre said. "I thought (Clemens) was terrific. ... Barry Zito is going to be an exciting pitcher to watch when he grows up a little bit."

Zito will be 25 in eight days. With a 23-win season, a Cy Young Award and three playoff rounds behind him, he's about as grown up as the Yankees ever want him to get.

"To be anywhere in October is ideal," Zito said when asked if he preferred a third Division Series meeting with the Yankees. "We missed the Yanks last year in the first round and it didn't work out for us. So whatever way it works. But I always like coming to New York."

Under Art Howe, the A's were 0-for-2 against the Yankees in sudden-death Game 5s. Now that Howe has bigger problems across town, Oakland can bring a fresh approach to October, not to mention three 20-something starters in Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, who now have enough bright-lights, big-stakes experience to stare down the Yankees' 30-somethings and 40-somethings.

"In a lot of situations when you have young pitchers in Yankee Stadium," Torre said, "it's a little bit of awe. But they've done it so often now, it's just another game to them."

So Hudson outpitched Jeff Weaver before Zito outpitched Clemens. Of course, everything could've changed in a New York minute. With two on and no outs in the seventh, Zito watched Bubba Trammell make violent contact with his pitched ball and immediately thought the Yankees had taken a 3-2 lead.

The ball landed in Eric Byrnes' glove before John Flaherty grounded into a double play. Clemens didn't come out for the eighth and Zito didn't come out for the ninth, but the game had been settled in the first, anyway, when a 2-1 Clemens fastball was sent packing by Scott Hatteberg, the one who had advanced this prizefight by calling it "Cy Young versus Cy Old."

"I agree with the theory of it," Zito said, "which means that Roger's won a bunch and I guess I'm a guy that just got it last year. But I would never want to say anyone's old in the game. I learned that when I first came up."

Like Zito, Clemens only surrendered four hits. He pitched with what Torre called, remarkably enough, "a childlike enthusiasm." Clemens entered the game on a rookie's high before settling himself a tad too late.

If human nature suggests that the closer one gets to history, the more excited one gets, Clemens has little use for the suggestion. He needs to beat Zito in Oakland for a chance to seize his 300th victory in Fenway, a scenario he won't covet in public.

"I'm not too worried about getting to the 300 mark," Clemens said. "I've been around 20 years and I've had a lot of these games, just like I've had them on the opposite eye. You just don't bat an eye at it. You just continue to work hard. ...You can continue to look ahead (to Boston) all you want, but I basically almost force myself not to look ahead because I'll have another challenge next Saturday and whatever comes after that."

What comes after that is a celebration of an extraordinary career. Torre literally caught Warren Spahn's 300th victory, and can't wait to figuratively catch Clemens' attempt to match the feat.

The Rocket has earned his big day. As for his paycheck, he'll earn that in October. The Yankees haven't won a title in two years, a not-so-venial sin in Steinbrenner's church. Their rotation came undone against the Anaheim Angels, who made David Wells, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte look plenty older than Clemens.

There remains so many miles on so many arms, precisely why I was all for passing on Clemens and trading for Bartolo Colon, a man who won 20 games without the Yankees' help. It's a moot point now. The Yankees will get back Derek Jeter and Jose Contreras and go from there.

"When you go up against these guys," Zito said, "they've got a one-through-nine (lineup) that's amazing, and the starting five is amazing as well."

Only the most amazing player Sunday was the Oakland starter. Zito leads a lean, mean and ready-to-finally-breakthrough team that might just beat the Yankees before they steal Miguel Tejada and locker him next to another heisted jewel, Jason Giambi.

What could Joe Torre say if that happens, other than "tough luck"?

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