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'The 300 Club' finally admits Clemens, Roger

NEW YORK -- Roger Clemens took a deep breath, looked into the TV camera and started rattling off names of the people who'd touched his heart. There were his teammates and the fans, of course, but more importantly, his wife and children.

Then Clemens got to his mother, Bess, who was home in Houston, watching the game while continuing her battle with emphysema. And that's when the Rocket lowered the walls of his soul and started to cry.

"Mom, I love you," the Rocket said, thanking her for helping him reach the promised land. Clemens became only the 21st pitcher to win 300 games, beating the Cardinals 5-2 on Friday night and ending a long, sometimes frustrating pursuit of history.

The expression on the Rocket's face needed no translation. It said, simply: finally. He didn't just celebrate the win, he absorbed every minute of a June night that felt more like October. Clemens sure treated it like a playoff game, blistering the Cardinals in a 10-strikeout performance, including No. 4,000 in the second inning, when he blew away Edgar Renteria with letter-high heat.

All that karma hung in the air in the ninth inning, when Mariano Rivera got Miguel Cairo to bounce out to Jason Giambi for the final out. At that point, Clemens said, "my feet weren't even touching the ground."

He found himself on the field, hugging his wife, pounding the backs of his teammates -- "he almost knocked my lungs out," Jorge Posada said -- and letting Elton John's "Rocket Man," blasting from the PA system, wash over him like the night's rain.

Clemens had thought about this moment ever since the Yankee bullpen failed him in Detroit. And failed him again at Wrigley Field. And it almost happened again in the seventh inning Friday, too, when Joe Torre committed what seemed to be professional suicide. He replaced the Rocket with a one-run lead, two out, no runners on, summoning Chris Hammond to face J.D. Drew.

Torre insisted Clemens was on a non-negotiable pitch-count, and that once he reached 120, his night was over. Strengthening Torre's resolve was Drew's presence in the batter's box. As early as the sixth inning, the manager had begun defending against this very encounter, deciding, "Roger was not going to face (Drew)."

The logic was textbook-certified, but that didn't mean a sellout crowd had to agree. It didn't. In fact, Torre was verbally abused as he walked toward the mound, signaling for Hammond before he'd even crossed the first base line.

There was no arguing, no disputing the manager's authority, even though Clemens was now dominating the Cards: He'd used just nine pitches to get through the sixth inning, and needed just nine more to get the first two outs in the seventh.

Yet, Torre wouldn't be swayed, even though he knew the booing would be merciless.

"I expected it," he said. "I told Roger, 'I used to be popular around here until you started this 300 thing.' I would have booed, too, if I had been sitting in the stands. They wanted Roger to pitch the complete game, but that wasn't going to happen where his pitch count was."

The Rocket came to his manager's defense, saying, "You can never question what this man does, he's so important to why we win. I would never question any of his decisions."

Still, Clemens and Torre must have both been sweating, especially after Drew laid down a perfect bunt against Hammond and Albert Pujols followed with an opposite-field single to right.

Was it possible the bullpen was melting -- again? The last time it happened, a reliever paid with his Yankee career. Juan Acevedo was released three days after allowing Eric Karros a three-run homer at Wrigley, ruining Clemens' pitching duel with Kerry Wood.

In fact, if Hammond hadn't been able to induce an inning-ending grounder to second base from Jim Edmonds, and if Raul Mondesi hadn't fattened the lead with a two-run home run in the bottom of the seventh ... well, the thought was just too dark for the Yankees to contemplate. Not with the ever-agitated George Steinbrenner in attendance.

Instead, Clemens was able to exhale slowly and finally digest the night's enormity.

"It's just a lot of hard work that's paid off for me," Clemens said. "There's so many people who helped me get here along the way. I can't even put it into words."

He meant family, friends and teammates -- present and past -- who put a nice touch on what the right-hander insists will be his final season. If so -- if he can't be persuaded by the Yankees to return in 2004 -- Clemens will remember Friday night's first inning, when he struck out the side with what he called, "straight adrenaline."

He'll remember that 4,000th strikeout. Or maybe the final out, when even the usually-stoic Rivera felt the ninth inning's burden.

"Getting the first two was OK, but with one out to go, I took extra time. I felt the pressure," the closer said. "I said, 'This is it. I've got to get this guy.' "

When he did, Clemens made sure to collect all the images for the memory bank, including the moment when two of his sons scooped up dirt from the mound as a keepsake.

Over and over, the Rocket tried to explain what it felt like to be in history's embrace. But as he spoke, it became obvious words were no match for Clemens' emotions. The tears told you that.

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.