Not over hill, but picking up speed

The Baltimore Sun

Joe Torre was a catcher for the Milwaukee Braves 44 years ago when Warren Spahn won his 350th game. No pitcher has reached the milestone since that day.

It could happen tonight. And purely by coincidence, Torre could be involved again.

As the New York Yankees' manager, Torre will be sitting in the visitors' dugout tonight at Camden Yards when Roger Clemens tries for his 350th victory in a start against the Orioles.

"Roger's remarkable in that he's pitching at 44 years old and the hunger is still there, the enjoyment of the game is still there and the need for competition is still there," Torre said.

Clemens will be making his fourth start - and pitching in his fifth game, counting Sunday's relief appearance in San Francisco - since signing with the Yankees on May 6 and ending months of speculation about where he would extend an all-but-certain Hall of Fame career.

"He's been a big, huge boost for us," Torre said. "He gives you a chance to win. And he's in remarkable shape - I hate to say for somebody that age because he's in better shape than somebody 10 years younger than him.

"When we were thinking about bringing him back, at least there wasn't the unknown. You knew what he was about, you knew what he was going to bring to the table. We're happy he's on our side."

With no spring training to prepare, and at an age when former pitchers are well into their broadcasting careers, Clemens is gradually working himself into peak form while trying to keep the Yankees in playoff contention. He lasted only 4 1/3 innings in his most recent start, a 4-3 loss at Colorado, and is 1-2 with a 5.09 ERA.

"Stuffwise, he's pretty much the same," catcher Jorge Posada said. "He won't be able to go as deep in games, and they're being careful not to throw him in the fire every five days.

"The big thing is his health. We want him to stay healthy."

Conditioning never has been an issue with Clemens. That's why the 44-year-old pitcher is able to make history as well as his starts.

"He always stays in shape during the year, but he only had about a month to get ready," Posada said.

Sometimes, it shows.

"He knows what he's doing, but he's not quite there yet," said former Orioles outfielder Ken Singleton, now a broadcaster for the YES network in New York. "You've got to remember, his starts here would be like the tail end of spring training and they're expecting him to do midseason stuff. He's pitched OK. If you asked him, he'd probably tell you he's not happy and he's got to improve.

"He's throwing 91, 92 [mph]. His real out pitch has been his splitter, particularly to the lefties. That looks in midseason form."

Clemens never meets with reporters the day before a start, and he wasn't at Camden Yards yesterday after receiving permission to attend the funeral of a friend's mother. Though a gentlemen's agreement doesn't require Clemens to stay with the team except when he's pitching, yesterday marked the first time he has been away since the Yankees activated him June 9.

"Probably not the ideal situation, but he's Roger Clemens, and they must feel he can still produce," Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said. "At his age, he probably wouldn't be doing this if he didn't have this arrangement, and the Yankees must think he's worth it. He knows how to pitch. He's got a great splitter, which is a great equalizer. I'm looking forward to seeing what his velocity is tomorrow night.

"I saw him in March and he said he was way behind. Last year he had the World Baseball Classic, so he was ready to pitch in March last year. He wasn't ready to pitch this year."

Clemens will be part of history tonight, whether he wins or not. For the first time in baseball history, seven pitchers age 40 or older will start on the same day; the other six are Philadelphia's Jamie Moyer (44), Detroit's Kenny Rogers (42), San Diego's Greg Maddux (41), the New York Mets' Tom Glavine (41), Houston's Woody Williams (40) and Atlanta's John Smoltz (40).

Maddux needs 11 wins to reach 350. Glavine is four away from 300.

"When you talk about the Glavines of the world and guys who have milestones they're shooting for, they're not on a ballclub just to go for their milestones. They're on their ballclubs to help them win pennants, which, to me, is very, very remarkable," Torre said.

"I was weaned on a guy like Warren Spahn, who won 23 games at 41 years old. And that, early on in my career, left a pretty good impression on me."

Clemens can make another impression on Torre tonight, as if the seven Cy Young Awards, 11 All-Star appearances and a win total that ranks eighth all-time weren't enough.

"To be able to do what he's doing," Palmer said, "you've got to have a great work ethic, you've got to be smart, you've got to be focused."

And you've got to find ways to get hitters out and keep that win total climbing - to a level that astounds teammates, opponents and the most casual observers.

"That's a lot of wins nowadays," Posada said. "I don't think we'll see a 300-game winner for a while, but it'll happen. Machines are better. Technology is better. But it's tough to do. Guys get hurt all the time. Winning 300 is hard enough. Roger's going for 350. That's pretty remarkable."

Said Singleton, "From now on, it won't happen."

Sun reporter Dan Connolly contributed to this article.

Winningest pitchers

............................................. Years ............... No.

Cy Young ...................... 1890-1911 ............ 511

Walter Johnson ........... 1907-1927 .............. 417

Grover Alexander ........ 1911-1930 ............ 373

Christy Mathewson ..... 1900-1916 ........... 373

Pud Galvin ....................... 1875-1892 ......... 365

Warren Spahn ................ 1942-1965 .......... 363

Kid Nichols ...................... 1890-1906 ......... 361

Roger Clemens ..................1984- ................ 349

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