Clemens finishes strong in last minor league outing

ROUND ROCK, Texas -- It was a rough start and solid finish for The Rocket.

Next stop: Houston.

Pitching for the Triple-A Round Rock Express in the final tuneup before his return to the Astros, Roger Clemens gave up three runs on three hits in the first inning before settling into a big-league groove Friday night against the New Orleans Zephyrs.

The seven-time Cy Young Award winner also walked three and faced nine batters in the first, throwing 41 pitches before retiring the next eight hitters in a row.

Clemens finished the night with 5 2/3 innings of work with five strikeouts, five hits and three walks. Of his 91 total pitches, 57 went for strikes. He also picked up the win as the Express rallied for a 7-4 victory.

"I made it a little harder work than I would have liked to in the first inning, but I'm going to run into those situations throughout the season as I come back," Clemens said.

It was the third outing in the minors for the 43-year-old right-hander who signed a $22 million contract for the season on May 31.

His first start with the Astros is Thursday at home against the Minnesota Twins. It will start his 23rd major league season.

"I'm on target," Clemens said. "My body feels fine. That was the ultimate goal coming out of here, my body feeling healthy."

Clemens was 13-8 with an ERA of 1.87 as the Astros went to the World Series last season.

Friday night, he pitched for a team in which he is a minority shareholder. He flashed a "Hook 'em Horns" sign and got a standing ovation from the Express-record 13,475 fans who came to watch the former Texas Longhorns star pitch about 15 miles from the campus where he won an NCAA championship in 1983.

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and actor Matthew McConaughey got a front-row seat next to the Express dugout.

Clemens admitted he was distracted early in an unfamiliar environment.

"I have to get focused as quick as possible," he said. "Probably my first 10 pitches I was seeing and hearing people dugout to dugout and not in tune with what I was doing.

"The bottom line was I was still trying to throw strikes and my ball was moving all over the place so I had to harness that," he said.

But unlike his two previous starts in Single-A Lexington, Ky., and Double-A Corpus Christi, where hitters might have been in awe of the burly right-hander, the Zephyrs were patient at the plate as Clemens struggled to find the strike zone.

It took a long time for Clemens to settle in as he missed inside and out with a two-seam fastball that hit 91 mph several times.

"You're going to get a little better test here. These kids are right on the door and knocking the door down to the big leagues," Clemens said.

Leadoff hitter Bernie Castro singled over the mound, stole second and moved to third on a sacrifice fly before scoring on Larry Broadway's single.

Two straight walks loaded the bases and forced in a run. Catcher Humberto Quintero and Express pitching coach Burt Hooton, who spent 15 seasons in the majors, both visited the mound to talk to Clemens, who has 341 career victories. Mike Vento's soft single to center made it 3-0.

Clemens said Hooton teased him about trying to get to his 90-pitch count quickly and leave early.

Clemens has 4,502 career strikeouts but didn't get his first against the Zephyrs until a called third strike on Alberto Castillo for the second out. Castillo was the eighth batter of the inning.

Mixing up fastballs and curves, Clemens found his groove when he came back out for the second and left with a 1-2-3 inning.

"I tested my legs as much as possible. My upper body is great. I think my back will be a little sore," he said. "I still hope I get a little more strength in my lower half. Being a power pitcher, it's very important for me, obviously."

The third ended when Tyrell Godwin tapped back to the mound and Clemens coolly scooped up the ball and tossed it to first for the final out of the inning.

After the rough start, Clemens needed just 27 pitches through the next three innings.

Clemens also had two at-bats. A .187 career hitter, he went 0-2 with two strikeouts.

Before the game, Nolan Ryan, who co-owns the Express and is the only man with more strikeouts (5,714) than Clemens, joked that the scouts were watching Clemens for a trip to the majors.

"If I had to tell you our [the Astros'] next call-up, I'd think it would be him," Ryan said.