FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Boston Red Sox ace Roger Clemens has been scratched from his Opening Day pitching assignment against the Minnesota Twins next Wednesday because of soreness behind his right shoulder, but he said yesterday that he is confident the injury is not season-threatening.
Clemens worked out for 10 minutes yesterday and said there has been significant improvement since shoulder tendinitis forced him to suspend his normal throwing schedule last week and sent a shiver through the Red Sox organization. He apparently didn't even want to concede his eighth straight Opening Day start, but manager Kevin Kennedy made that decision for him.
"The plan right now is for Aaron Sele to start," Kennedy said. "We're preparing right now for Sele."
The Red Sox appear to be preparing for the worst. The club signed free-agent starting pitcher Zane Smith to a one-year contract yesterday and will place him right behind Sele and recent free-agent acquisition Erik Hanson in the starting rotation, but Clemens could rejoin the rotation by the end of the first week if all goes well over the next few days.
"I'm not ruling anything out," he said. "I don't know. Something could click on, and everything could be fine on Friday. . . . The other day, I couldn't warm up. Today, I threw 70-75 miles per hour off the mound and felt good. Toward the middle part of the workout, the muscle tired a little, but I continued and I feel I gave it a good test.
"I've just got to come out on Friday and do the same thing and hopefully throw some breaking balls, but I've got to see how it feels tomorrow."
If Clemens' shoulder soreness persists, he likely would be sent back to Boston for more medical tests and told to stop throwing for an extended period.
"I'm encouraged that he was able to throw pain-free," Kennedy said, "and I think he is, too. . . . I'm not saying that we're out of the woods. We'll just take it day by day."
Clemens is one of the most overpowering pitchers in the game, but he has had to overcome a variety of nagging injuries during the past three years. He was hampered by a severe groin strain in 1992, experienced groin and elbow soreness in '93 and pitched through shoulder and forearm stiffness last year.
That's why he came to camp so upbeat this spring. He had thrown regularly throughout the final two months of the baseball strike and arrived in camp feeling strong.
"Obviously, I was very depressed the other day, because I had to take a couple of steps back," he said. "My mind is a little more at ease now, but I'm still disappointed, because I was really ready when I got here."
Disappointed, but not necessarily surprised that some pitchers are having problems adjusting to a compressed spring-training regimen. Pitchers normally have nearly seven weeks to prepare. This year, with less than three weeks to get ready, there will be pressure to get up to speed. "I'm going to be real surprised if a lot of guys aren't scuffling," Clemens said. "I think you're going to have to be deep in pitching."
The loss of Clemens for any significant length of time would be a major setback for the Red Sox, who are depending heavily on an explosive offensive lineup to help smooth out the rough spots on the pitching staff. They have made several moves to shore up the staff over the past couple of weeks -- signing Smith, Hanson and relievers Stan Belinda and Alejandro Pena -- but still figure to be in the middle of the pack in the tough American League East.
Smith, who was 10-8 with a 3.27 ERA for the Pittsburgh Pirates last year, is a proven starting pitcher who may benefit by switching to the American League. The Red Sox also remain interested in Seattle Mariners ace Randy Johnson, but don't figure to pick up another big contract unless it becomes evident that Clemens will be lost for the season.
But if Clemens misses even a handful of starts, the club could find itself playing catch-up all summer.
"I plan on being there," Clemens said, "so I'm not concerned about that."