10 moments that defined 'Rocket' Roger

August 4th, 2022

What a dominant career Roger Clemens had, winning a record-setting seven Cy Young Awards, including at least one for all four teams (Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros) he pitched for.

His two-plus decades of brilliance (1984-07) were filled with memorable performances and milestones.

It’s hard to narrow his top moments down to 10, but here are the ones that truly stand out.

1) A new record -- 20 K’s
The first major hint that Clemens was going to become a pitching legend happened on a cold Tuesday night in Boston on April 29, 1986. Clemens was going on two extra days of rest thanks to his Sunday afternoon start in Kansas City getting rained out. The flame-throwing righty looked powerful from the outset right down to his final pitch, as he set a new AL/NL strikeout record by whiffing 20 Seattle Mariners.

He got Phil Bradley looking for the second out of the ninth to get No. 20. Bradley was the only Seattle player to get punched out four times. Dave Henderson, who would go on to join Clemens and become an October hero later in that ’86 season, was one of three Seattle players to strike out three times.

While it was clear something special was in the air by the mid innings, there was some question until late if Clemens and the Red Sox would actually win. They were down 1-0 until the bottom of the seventh, when Dwight Evans smashed a three-run homer to center to propel Boston to a 3-1 win.

2) 20-K sequel
More than a decade later, that record of 20 K’s in a single start still stood for Clemens. And then he went out and tied it himself. In his start on Sept. 18, 1996 at Tiger Stadium, Clemens again hit the 20 mark. This time, it came down to the last pitch of the game, as the Rocket whiffed Travis Fryman.

It was a night to remember for Clemens for more than just the 20 strikeouts. It was his 192nd win and 38th shutout for the Red Sox. Both those numbers put Clemens in a tie with Cy Young for the club record. Those records still remain. Clemens made just two more starts for Boston after his 20-K sequel in the Motor City.

3) 300th win, 4,000th K
In one memorable Friday night at Yankee Stadium on June 13, 2003, Clemens reached two major career milestones. First, he struck out Cardinals shortstop Edgar Renteria in the top of the second for his 4,000th career strikeout. Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson are the only other pitchers in history to reach 4,000 strikeouts.

Clemens went 6 2/3 innings and struck out 10 that night to earn his 300th win. Clemens became the first pitcher since his idol Ryan in 1990 wo win 300 games. Only three pitchers – Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Johnson have done it since.

4) 1986 -- MVP
While that first 20-K game clearly put Clemens on the map, he made himself perhaps the story of baseball for the rest of that ’86 season.

At the age of 23, Clemens won his first 14 decisions that year. He was the obvious choice to start the All-Star Game in his hometown of Houston, and Clemens did not disappoint, firing three perfect innings to win the MVP under the roof of the Astrodome.

It was not his last MVP trophy of 1986. With a glittering 24-4 record, Clemens led the league in ERA (2.48) and WHIP while registering 238 strikeouts. Clemens won the American League’s MVP Award. He is just one of 11 pitchers in history to accomplish that feat. It was also his first career Cy Young Award. There would be many more where that came from.

5) Rocket’s first ring
As the 1990s were coming to a close, Clemens had done just about everything possible in his career with the exception of winning a World Series. When Clemens was traded from Toronto to the Yankees for David Wells on Feb. 18, 1999, the wheels were set in motion for him to finally get his ring.

Though the ’99 regular season was one of the most forgettable (14-10, 4.60 ERA) from a statistical standpoint for Clemens, it ended just the way he wanted. With the Yankees up 3-0 on the Braves in the ’99 World Series, it was Clemens who got the chance to close out the series. And close it he did, pitching 7 2/3 strong innings (one ER) as the Yankees won their third World Series title in four years. Clemens and the Yankees would make it four out of five one year later.

6) Game 4, 2000 ALCS
When Clemens took the mound at Safeco Field against the Mariners on Oct. 14, 2000 for Game 4 of the ALCS, his career postseason numbers (3-5, 4.32 ERA in 14 starts) were mediocre. He changed the narrative on that in dramatic fashion with the best October performance of his career. It was a performance for the ages, in fact.

Clemens fired a one-hitter with 15 strikeouts as the Yankees shut out the Mariners, 5-0. That gave New York a 3-1 lead in a series they would win in six games. Clemens finished his career 12-8 with a 3.75 ERA in 35 postseason appearances, so the Seattle start was a clear turning point.

7) Houston homecoming, seventh Cy
Remember that whole retirement tour Clemens went on in 2003 with the Yankees? ESPN even did a behind-the-scenes documentary about it. Well, things changed when Andy Pettitte left the Yankees and signed with his hometown Astros as a free agent and then helped convince Clemens to do the same.

The homecoming was storybook. Clemens won his seventh career Cy Young Award in 2004 – his first of three seasons with the Astros. No other pitcher has won more than five Cy Youngs. In ’05, Clemens helped guide the Astros to their first World Series appearance, but they were swept by the White Sox.

8) Game 7 duel with Schilling in desert
Though this night ended with the Yankees losing a heartbreaking Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in Arizona, it started with Clemens engaging with Curt Schilling in one of the most compelling postseason pitching duels ever. Clemens held the D-backs to one run over 6 1/3 innings and struck out 10 and left with the game tied at 1. Schilling allowed two runs over 7 1/3 innings and struck out nine. It seemed like the Yankees were in position to win when Alfonso Soriano took Schilling deep in the eighth to snap the tie.

But for one of the few times in his career, Mariano Rivera didn’t come through, and the Yankees lost on a bloop single by Luis Gonzalez. It doesn’t change how well Clemens pitched that night in a game that will be remembered by anyone who saw it.

9) Rocket’s return to Fenway with Toronto
Feelings were very raw for both Red Sox Nation and for Clemens when he pitched at Fenway Park as a visiting player for the first time on July 12, 1997. Wearing a scowl throughout the contest, Clemens mowed through his old team with 16 strikeouts while allowing just one run over eight innings in a 3-1 win.

After striking out Mo Vaughn to end the masterpiece, Clemens very memorably glared up at the suite that then-Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette was sitting in. Duquette memorably uttered that Clemens was “entering the twilight of his career” when free-agent negotiations broke down the previous winter.

10) 161-pitch shutout in Texas heat
It was hard to ever question the determination of Clemens when he was on the mound. Never was that more on display than the night of July 25, 1988, when Clemens took the ball for the Red Sox on a searing-hot night (game-time temperature of 100 degrees) in Texas against the Rangers. Not only did Clemens fire 161 pitches, but he struck out 14 and fired a three-hit shutout. The Red Sox won, 2-0, and went on to the AL East title.