The game set up for Roger Clemens' latest monumental achievement, but when a pitching duel finally broke up on a humid night at Camden Yards, it was the Orioles' ace who had turned in one of the signature performances of his burgeoning career.
Just 5 years old when Clemens made his major league debut, Erik Bedard put a stranglehold on last night's game and never let go in his matchup with the all-but-certain future Hall of Famer, limiting the reeling New York Yankees to three base runners in seven innings in the Orioles' 4-0 victory.
Before an announced 35,776, Bedard allowed just two hits and a walk while striking out eight, including Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada twice each. The Orioles (34-43) finally got to Clemens, who was seeking to become the first pitcher in 44 years to win his 350th game, in a four-run sixth inning that was highlighted by a three-run homer by Aubrey Huff, his first since May 9. Clemens didn't record a strikeout for the first time in 201 starts.
The victory, assured when Chad Bradford got Bobby Abreu to ground out with two on in the ninth, clinched the Orioles' first home series victory over the Yankees (36-39) since April 2005 and improved their record to 4-1 against New York this season. The Yankees have lost four straight and seven of their past eight, while the Orioles have won five of seven.
"The confidence level is getting better," said Dave Trembley, who improved to 5-3 as the Orioles' interim manager. "There's a whole lot of guys that understand that what they went through, hopefully, is done and over with and we're looking for bigger and better things."
Such things seem possible when Bedard steps up and pitches like the No. 1 starter team officials think he could be. The Orioles left-hander struck out the first four batters he faced and never allowed a Yankee to reach second base during his 108-pitch outing.
"What I saw out of him tonight?" pitching coach Leo Mazzone asked rhetorically. "An all-star pitcher. ... I think he's been this way all year basically. The greatest compliment that I could give Erik Bedard is with some of the great staffs in Atlanta that I had the privilege of coaching, he could have pitched in them."
Bedard, who is 6-4 with a 3.36 ERA and has a major league-leading 129 strikeouts, left the stadium without speaking to the media, but he was praised in both clubhouses, including by Yankees designated hitter Johnny Damon, who called Bedard an "incredible pitcher."
"He has a much better idea than he had when he was younger," Damon said. "The pitches he's throwing kept hitting his spots. He throws a lot of borderline pitches that are either on the corner or balls, and a lot of times we have to chase those because they are too close. He's just putting the balls in good spots."
Said Yankees manager Joe Torre: "Right now, he's an accomplished left-hander, and that's the highest compliment I can pay him."
There was some concern that Bedard might not be ready to make the start after he was removed from his last outing with a strained left hamstring. But after he threw a bullpen session in Arizona, Bedard, knowing that he was scheduled to face the 44-year-old Clemens, told Trembley he wanted to pitch.
In a hyped matchup on Opening Day against Minnesota Twins left-hander Johan Santana, Bedard let the moment get the best of him. But that didn't happen last night against Clemens, who was seeking to become the eighth pitcher to win 350 games and the first since Warren Spahn did it in 1963.
"Erik is probably about as reserved a young man as you'll ever meet, but he's as competitive a guy as you'll ever come across," Trembley said. "He's pretty composed most of the time, but he's very aware of what the situation is. ... I don't think there's any doubt the guy's a bona fide No. 1 on this club. He's pitched like that all year."
Clemens breezed through the first three innings and got out of jams in the fourth and fifth before the Orioles got to him in the sixth. Ramon Hernandez broke up the scoreless game with a bouncing single up the middle after Chris Gomez had hit a single and Nick Markakis had walked. Then Huff lined Clemens' 1-1 pitch into the left-field seats for his fifth home run, breaking the longest homerless streak of his career at 143 at-bats.
"But something about the home run swing, it's just not really coming this year. I can't really explain it," said Huff, who played with Clemens for part of last season in Houston. "I'd like to hit a home run there against anybody, but especially against the Yankees here, when probably 60 percent of their crowd's out there in our own stadium. When I played in Tampa, I thought that was just in Tampa, but apparently that's everywhere."
Clemens, who hadn't faced the Orioles since September 2003, didn't return after the sixth inning and is 1-3 with a 5.32 ERA in four starts and five appearances. The last time he hadn't struck out a batter was June 14, 2000, which had been the third-longest active streak in the league.
"What a matchup," said Trembley, who took comfort that his pitcher got the best of it.