Otherworldly Rocket

HOUSTON -- There are pitchers. There are great pitchers. There are big-game pitchers. And then there's Roger Clemens.

"He's a superhero, man," said his teammate, Jeff Bagwell. "He's the Rocket. You can't tell me everyone on the field doesn't know about him, doesn't know who he is. The Legend of Rocket always grows."

Well, friends, it's safe to say the Legend of Rocket added another floor to the old skyscraper Saturday.

He was all that stood between the Houston Astros and a certifiable postseason disaster. His team needed him. His town needed him.

Was there any doubt what would happen next?

Late on a memorable October afternoon, Clemens stomped to the mound and spun off seven four-hit innings in a ballpark so loud, "I thought the roof would blow off," said closer Brad Lidge. And three hours later, the NLCS was a whole different series.

Three hours later, that Minute Maid Park scoreboard read: Astros 5, Cardinals 2. And all of a sudden, this NLCS doesn't look like a Cardinals runaway anymore.

True, the Cardinals still lead it, 2 games to 1. And true, the last 14 teams to do what they did -- kick off a best-of-seven series by taking a 2-games-to-0 lead at home -- have all gone on to win the series. So the odds are still with them.

"But eventually," said Bagwell, "there's going to be someone that comes along and breaks all those odds. And hopefully, people will say some day it was the 2004 Houston Astros."

Uh, not out of the question -- because if ever there was a team to which those odds didn't apply, these Astros would be that team.

Before they came along, 61 other teams had lost the first two games of a best-of-seven postseason series. And 49 of them lost.

But how many of those other 61 teams were coming home to play in a park where they'd just gone 19-1 in their last 20 games?

And how many of them were about to throw their two best pitchers (Clemens and Roy Oswalt) in Games 3 and 4? It's a good bet that most of those teams (like the Red Sox) had already used their 1-2 starters in losing those first two games.

"So it was a funny thing," said Lidge. "I know we were down, 0-2. But coming back home, with Roy and Roger pitching, it didn't really feel like we were down, 0-2."

And if it didn't, this team had more than psychological reasons to feel that way. The last eight times Clemens and Oswalt had started back-to-back games, the Astros' record was 15-1. The last 23 games those two started in any order, the Astros were 19-4.

Now that Clemens has held up his half of that omnipotent equation, Sunday is Oswalt's turn, in a game just as monumental.

"Of all the games that are called must-win games, I bet only about 10 percent of them are really must-wins," said Lance Berkman. "But tomorrow is one of those. ... And today was an absolute must-win. Their club is too talented to spot them a three-game lead."

So in other words, there are must-win games, absolute must-win games -- and even, Berkman said, a third category -- desperation must-wins.

Well, the Astros weren't into the desperation must-win stage. But if you're going to play a game that ascends into absolute must-winnery, it sure helps the psyche to be able to do something no other team in history has ever done when trailing a series, 2 games to zip:

Hand the baseball to a 328-game winner.

"When Roger has the ball," said catcher Brad Ausmus, "he has a certain energy unlike anyone I've ever seen. His focus and intensity out there are unsurpassed by anyone I've ever caught, with the possible exception of Randy Johnson. You watch him move out there. You watch his facial expressions. He's got a purpose. And he's been doing it every single pitch, in his case, for two decades."

Clemens has started and won a game like this before, with his team trailing, 2 games to 0 -- for the Yankees, in Game 3 of the 2001 World Series. But this, even he admitted, was different. This, he said, "is my hometown."

His kids were in the stands. His wife was in the stands. His friends were in the stands. Even his mother -- 73-yeard-old Bess Clemens -- was in the stands.

"I hope mom's not too tired over there," Clemens said afterward. "She pitches every pitch with me. She's still breathing. That's the good thing."

"Need to wrap my arm," quipped Mrs. Clemens.

"Need to ice down tonight, mom," laughed her son.

If it weren't for moments like that one, you understand, Roger Clemens never even would have been in uniform Saturday. If it weren't for this opportunity to pitch in this town in front of all these people he loves -- and millions more who love him back -- he would have still been retired. He would have spent this day kicking back watching the Texas Longhorns play a different kind of sport.

But watching his ferocity grow -- and his slim one-run lead stick -- as this day wore on, you asked yourself one more time: Why did this guy ever retire -- even for five minutes?

He wasn't very Rocket-like early on. Worrying about his sore push-off leg. Pushing his fabled splitter. Leaving a first-pitch fastball in the middle of the plate in the first inning, that Larry Walker practically pounded off the 2004 Wild Card Champions banner, way out in Home Run Land in deep left-center field.

But then, in the bottom of the first, Jeff Kent fought back from an 0-2 hole himself to launch a two-run homer off Jeff Suppan, supplying Clemens with a 3-1 lead. And at that point, you could see the fire in Clemens' eyes from here to San Antonio.

"Give him a lead," said his pal, Andy Pettitte, "and he's as good as any pitcher I've ever seen."

He did give up one more run, on a second-inning Jim Edmonds homer. But after that, he got downright ridiculous -- allowing precisely one hit (a bloop single by Scott Rolen) over his final five innings.

Then -- in a fourth-inning duel with Edgar Renteria, as Rolen literally lurched and boogied off second -- Clemens finally located his killer splitter. From that point on, he struck out seven of the final 13 hitters he faced. And the best lineup in the National League was reduced mostly to trying to run up his pitch count to get him out of there.

That finally happened, seven innings and 116 pitches into his day. But even that didn't help the Cardinals' cause a whole lot, because that just meant it was Brad Lidge Time.

Eventually, the Cardinals would make Lidge sweat, too -- for 42 grueling pitches. But in the end, Lidge's final line would read: 2 innings, 5 strikeouts. So after too many days of too many innings from too many Chad Harvilles, this was a textbook example of how the Houston Astros won 36 of those last 46 games down the stretch.

"Before the game," said Ausmus, "I thought, 'If Roger can go seven innings and Lidge can go two, that would be the perfect game.' "

And he was, obviously, the perfect man to pitch it. Even at age 42, the same age as that franchise he now pitches for. Only one 42-year-old pitcher in history ever won a postseason game. And that, of course, was him.

Only one pitcher has ever won more than one postseason start after passing the age of 40. And that, of course, was also him.

But it has taken more than talent for him to do what he has done this year, for this particular team. It has taken presence, leadership and a mammoth sense of responsibility.

"You have to remember, this is a totally different club than the club we took into the season," Bagwell said. "Roger and Roy (Oswalt) have been the only constants."

They were just supposed to represent half of a four-aces starting rotation. But Pettitte went down. And Wade Miller went down. And after that, it was all the Astros could do to find four guys to pitch at all, let alone pitch like aces.

"So what I saw today -- this was nothing different than what I've seen every time he took the mound," Bagwell said. "This guy is one of the greatest pitchers ever to take the mound. And he's like that all the time."

His record for the year, at age 42, is now 20-4, counting the playoffs. His team is now 26-11 when he starts. Without him, they wouldn't still be alive in this series -- and not just because of what happened Saturday. Without him, they wouldn't still be playing. Period.

But this was just one afternoon for the Houston Astros to be grateful merely to have him around -- because they were only hours away from the latest and greatest in their never-ending series of must-win games.

"It's only one game," said Roger Clemens. "Now we need to come out here, same time, same place, and do it again (Sunday), with another huge, loud crowd."

They will do it Sunday with a 20-game winner (Oswalt), and another legitimate ace. But there are aces. There are stoppers. And there are horses. And then there is Roger Clemens. There's only one of him on the face of the planet.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.