SEATTLE - Future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens had a couple of rough outings in the Division Series, but he showed again last night why he probably is the best pitcher of his generation.
Clemens delivered the most dominating postseason performance of his great career, surrendering just one hit and striking out 15 batters to carry the New York Yankees to a 5-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at Safeco Field.
The sellout crowd of 47,803 couldn't have enjoyed watching the Mariners fall behind three games to one in the best-of-seven playoff, but Clemens still made it an evening to remember.
He has pitched some big games in October, including the decisive victories in last year's ALCS and World Series, but never had he been so efficient and overpowering. The 15 strikeouts set an ALCS record for a nine-inning game and tied Livan Hernandez for the LCS mark. Orioles right-hander Mike Mussina also had 15 in an ALCS game, but that game ran 12 innings.
The victory was Clemens' fourth in seven career postseason decisions and it propelled the Yankees into a possible pennant clincher today. Baltimore-area native Denny Neagle can push the Yankees into the World Series when he faces Mariners ace Freddy Garcia in Game 5.
"Tonight was special," Clemens said. "I knew I was going to be strong. I tried to do the things I needed to do not to overthrow. My fastball was alive. I just knew I had to harness it early."
Clemens became the second New York pitcher to throw a one-hitter in this postseason. Mets veteran Bobby J. Jones turned the trick against the San Francisco Giants in the divisional round, but Clemens came within inches of pitching the first postseason no-hitter since Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
The only hit - a seventh-inning double by Al Martin - glanced off the glove of Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez before bouncing into the right-field corner.'That was total dominance tonight," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "When he got to the sixth inning, I was visualizing Bob Gibson pitching against the Detroit Tigers in 1968."
The legendary "Rocket" established his turf early, and it didn't sit well with the Mariners. He decked Seattle superstar Alex Rodriguez with a chin-level pitch in the first inning and threw another pitch inside during the same at-bat, which prompted an angry response from Mariners manager Lou Piniella after the game.
"If he wants to throw at our guys, we'll throw at their guys, period," Piniella said. "He's made a pretty good reputation for himself like that."
Rodriguez was the one guy in the Seattle lineup with decent numbers against Clemens, so the Mariners didn't feel it was a coincidence that he was the guy to go down. Clemens insisted that he was just trying to work the inside part of the plate against a very tough opponent.
"We had a game plan and we stuck right to it," Clemens said. "We wanted to work inside. I didn't think the first one was that close. The second one was closer. I was trying to go at his hands both times. I was going for strikes both times.
"I can get what I need done by working both sides of the plate. I wanted to open up the other side of the plate a little bit."
Abbott had given up just one single through his first 4 2/3 innings - matching Clemens out for out in a game the Mariners had to win. He got the first two outs of the fifth without incident, then allowed a single to No. 9 hitter Scott Brosius and walked leadoff man Chuck Knoblauch.
Maybe he was trying to finesse the Yankees' designated hitter. Maybe he just couldn't find the strike zone. Maybe he was feeling the effects of the stiff shoulder that would force him out of the game in the sixth. Whatever the reason, he allowed an easy inning to turn into one of the pivotal moments of the series.
Jeter took the first pitch for a ball, bringing Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price to the mound for a protracted discussion with Abbott and catcher Dan Wilson. His advice didn't have the desired effect, because Jeter hit the next pitch over the center-field fence to give the Yankees a sudden 3-0 lead.
It wasn't exactly a no-doubt home run. Jeter launched a towering fly ball that - at first glance - looked like a routine warning track out, but it apparently got up high enough to benefit from the left-to-right breeze that kept the flags atop the outfield bleacher section fluttering throughout the game. The ball cleared the wall just inches beyond the outstretched glove of leaping center fielder Mike Cameron to create an instant - and seemingly insurmountable - advantage for the two-time defending world champions.
"When I hit it, I thought I hit it well," Jeter said, "but I knew I hit it high. Cameron has robbed me in the past and it looked like he was going to do it again."
The game didn't turn out exactly the way Piniella envisioned it. He predicted after Game 3 that the Seattle offense would break out yesterday, but he must not have apprised himself of his club's career numbers against Clemens.
Rodriguez came into the game with a .341 average in 44 at-bats vs. The Rocket, but the rest of last night's starting lineup had a combined .204 average against the five-time Cy Young Award winner.
Piniella shuffled the batting order in an attempt to jump-start the offense, but some of his lineup decisions were difficult to comprehend. He moved Stan Javier into the leadoff spot even though the journeyman outfielder had just one hit off Clemens in 14 career at-bats. He also replaced Mark McLemore (11-for-57) with young Carlos Guillen, who was hitless in four career at-bats against Clemens.
The way Clemens was pitching, maybe it was all academic anyway. He was so sharp that he struck out five Mariners looking, including Edgar Martinez and Cameron representing the tying run in the seventh inning. The Martinez strikeout was Clemens' 10th of the game, making him the 11th pitcher in ALCS history to reach double figures.
The Yankees would stretch the lead to five in the top of the eighth when David Justice launched a mammoth two-run home run off former Oriole Jose Mesa. The ball hit the high wall behind the center-field fence - a blast estimated at about 430 feet.
Seattle vs. N.Y. Yankees
(Best of seven)
New York leads series 3-1
Game 1: Seattle, 2-0
Game 2: New York, 7-1
Game 3: New York, 8-2
Last night: New York, 5-0
Today: at Seattle, 4:09 p.m.
*Tuesday: at N.Y., 8:12 p.m.
*Wednesday: at N.Y., 8:12 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4 *-If necessary